Andrew Leslie: Parliamentary secretary, Canada-U.S. relations
‘Friendships need work; let’s not take [the U.S.] for granted’
In 2011, Andrew Leslie retired from the Canadian Forces as a lieutenant-general. He had served as chief of land forces and also as chief of transformation. He retired on a Friday after 35 years in uniform, and started working for a large corporation the following Monday. It wasn’t for him, though, he says, and nor was consulting. Instead, he found his second career by knocking on doors in his Ottawa neighbourhood of Orléans and was first elected to parliament in October 2015. He was soon named whip and, after the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, he was named parliamentary secretary to the foreign minister. His responsibilities focus on the Canada-U.S. relationship.
The tireless politician met with Diplomat’s editor, Jennifer Campbell, in late January, just after accepting his newest position. He gave this interview at the end of a long day that started with a 30-minute run and about 25 minutes of weight training, something he tries to do every day and succeeds in doing five to six times a week.
Diplomat magazine: Just yesterday [January 30], you formally took your post as parliamentary secretary (Canada-U.S. Relations) to Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland.
Andrew Leslie: Technically, yes, but actually, the prime minister asked me to do this a week ago.
DM: And that’s why you ended up at the Trump presidential inauguration in Washington?
AL: Yes, and right from there to the cabinet retreat in Calgary.
DM: This [Canada-U.S. relations] is an unusual new area of concentration for a parliamentary secretary at Global Affairs Canada. How important is it?
AL: It is important, and it’s not completely unprecedented because my very good friend, Scott Brison, did exactly the same job about 13 years ago. The whole idea is to reposition assets, in this case, people, to better facilitate a good, clean dialogue with the Trump administration. Starting at the top, you’ve got the prime minister, who is and has always been actively engaged on the file, but now more so than ever. You have Marc Garneau, who is chairing the Canada-U.S. committee. You have heavy-hitters from the Prime Minister’s Office being repositioned into the chief-of-staff role and others in Global Affairs.
You have Chrystia Freeland replacing Stéphane Dion as minister of foreign affairs, and she has unbelievable U.S. contacts because of her former journalistic career. And, much more modestly, you have people like myself, who have a variety of contacts in the U.S. based on many years’ experience of travelling to Washington to help resolve a variety of issues that we were dealing with. In my time, it was mainly the Afghan war, but not solely; I also had a lot of dealings at the time of the Yugoslavia operations.
DM: When Freeland was named foreign minister, there was a kind of “in brackets” part of her title that said she will remain responsible for the Canada-U.S. trade file (given that her former position was as minister of international trade). Will that part of her job fall to you?
AL: No, that stays very much within her immediate portfolio. There’s only one minister. The parliamentary secretary, though I represent the minister in her absence and I can articulate the position of the government, I’m by definition not a minister, so she has the executive authority for that, subject to the will of cabinet. We’ll both sit on the cabinet committee for Canada-U.S. relations, but that’s more an advisory group that then reports to the full cabinet committee. I’m not part of the latter, unless invited. I have the same status as I did as a whip. I’m a member of the Privy Council, but [I] don’t go to cabinet meetings unless [I’m] invited. I was rarely invited to cabinet as a whip.
DM: It’s been reported that you’ve been given this job because of the appointments of Gen. James Mattis as defense secretary and Gen. Mike Flynn [who has since resigned] as national security adviser. Is that so?
AL: Those may have been triggers. Having spent some time on the phone with former colleagues in Washington, namely army buddies, and having been there for a while over the last week or two, there are literally thousands of positions that President Trump’s administration is going to have to fill. [These are the positions of] political appointees who, by tradition, submit their resignations on the 20th of January. So they’re going to have to fill those positions and the indicators are that a lot of military folk will be competing for them, and may be selected. The prime minister thought I could be of use there. And he also needed someone to help co-ordinate the flow of rekindling the flame between friends. Friendships need work. Let’s not take it for granted — especially not now.
DM: How was being at the inauguration?
AL: I started the morning down on the grass in front of the Capitol Building. That was fun and there was lots of energy. There were some differences of opinion. I went to the [Canadian] embassy by 10:30 a.m. and that was equally interesting because the ambassador and the team there did a magnificent job of hosting thousands of people. I’d say two thirds of the crowd was American and the rest were Canadians who worked or lived in the area or who just came down for the inauguration.
DM: Who were the Americans in attendance? Why were they there?
AL: Some had business interests in Canada, some were friends of Canada. There were a significant number of people in uniform — air force, army, navy. I didn’t see any coast guards, but I saw marines. People whose family members had married Canadians — that sort of stuff. It was all very friendly.
DM: Do you have any sense of why they call James Mattis “Mad Dog Mattis”?
AL: He hates that. Well, ‘hates’ is too strong a word, he dislikes it, I’m told. I don’t know that for a fact because I’ve never actually discussed it with him. He is an extraordinarily bright, thoughtful, articulate warrior scholar and he is very much a field officer and very much a counter-insurgency and counter-terrorist theorist. But like any field commander, he’s had to talk to large numbers of troops who are about to go and do very unpleasant things and ther
e’s a certain tone of voice and motivational way of talking. And apparently, there was a journalist one day… and the nickname stuck.
DM: And how do you expect this administration will change foreign and defence policy from the Obama administration?
AL: It’s too early to say. There’s a lot of opinion out there and there always is in a period of transition. Opinion leads to uncertainty and uncertainty can lead to tension because people aren’t sure what’s about to happen and that, in turn, gets people talking and then rumours sweep through social media at the speed of light. The simple answer is I don’t know. I’ve read two of President Trump’s principal books and I’ve seen the manifesto that he published about 45 days before the election and so far, nothing he has done is a surprise in terms of what he said he would do. I think how it’s been done is a bit… innovative. But we just have to maintain the dialogue. Let’s never forget they’re our closest friend and ally, there are millions of Canadians who’ve married Americans and vice-versa. About a fifth of my family, maybe even a quarter, is down in the States as Americans.
The relationship is going to need more work and the more people you know in times of uncertainty, the more clarity you can get.
Last weekend, there was the issue of the [travel] ban list [preventing travellers from seven Muslim countries from entering the U.S.] Was that going to impact Canadians? We didn’t know, but based on patient, diligent work over the past couple of months, senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office were able to call their opposite members in the White House. Our national security adviser called their national security adviser. Our ambassador got a hold of senior members of the State Department. And very quickly, we had a clear answer that Canadians were not affected. That speaks to the relationship, the contacts and the good work that’s already happened.
DM: Did you meet Mattis in your previous military life? Can you share some anecdotes about time you’ve spent with him?
AL: I’ve met him. I don’t know him as well as I know Shawn [points to his assistant, Shawn Kalbhenn] but I’ve met him. Our paths have crossed over the years. I didn’t see him during the inauguration because he was… kind of busy.
I’m not alone in this [job]. We have other parliamentarians — multiple dozens — who have strong contacts in the States and someone’s going to have to try to co-ordinate our efforts and that’s part of what my remit will be.
DM: Generally, how do you see the current state of Canada-U.S. relations?
AL: Strong. They’re still our closest friend and ally. We still have integrated economies. Canadians have millions of friends down there and vice-versa. We in Canada think a lot more about the States than they think about us — it’s simply a matter of scale. But [the relationship] is not something we can take for granted.
This period of uncertainty around a transition is natural, perhaps now more so than in other times that I can think of, but that just means we’ve got to do more.
DM: Is Canada even on Trump’s radar?
AL: I think we’re on his radar, but what size of blip we are, I don’t know. I think he’s mainly focused south of his border, mostly because of the trade imbalance that exists between the U.S. and Mexico. Mexico sells far more to the U.S. than vice-versa, whereas we’re actually the other way around, though that fluctuates.
DM: Do we want to be on his radar? I interviewed Howard Dean about a week after the election and he told me: ‘You Canadians always complain that you’re not on the U.S.’s radar. I suggest you just stay there and enjoy it.’
AL: [Laughs.] I know we’re on [Trump’s] radar. He and the prime minister have spoken several times [and since this interview, they’ve met in person at the White House]. And when we were at the cabinet retreat, days after his inauguration, Steve Schwartzman, who is the president of his economic advisory council and a multi-billionaire himself, came out and spent a whole day with us. He’s a busy guy, plus he has a huge series of companies to run on his own. What was interesting was that, of the 50 or 60 people in the room, he probably already knew a dozen, so we’re certainly known.
Being the president of the United States though — I can only imagine how busy that is. And the president’s time is probably allocated to areas that are problems, so the more time you’re on their radar, that’s not necessarily [what you want.]
DM: How do you see the U.S.’s inward-looking economic protectionism and seeming domestic preoccupation, as opposed to its role as world police, jiving with Trump’s promise to rebuild its military?
AL: A variety of equipment that the U.S. armed forces have has been very hard used in, quite frankly, 25 to 28 years of continuous warfare. Most important, a lot of the troops are in danger of being exhausted by continual deployments. In some cases, it’s generational. We have mothers whose sons are deploying to the same region where those women first deployed. Iraq is one, but there are others, such as Afghanistan. The U.S. has [hundreds of thousands of] troops deployed internationally and though they may not all be in active combat, they’re still away from home, there’s training cycles you go through and the list goes on.
But [on military rebuilding], there’s no detail. So obviously, we’re going to stand by our principles and defend our interests. First, we try to understand what surrounds a variety of statements. What’s the detail, what does it actually mean? That’s where personal contacts are key because you can try to extract those details and you can help shape them in a way that’s more logical for our values and interests.
DM: I know you have other responsibilities, but speaking strictly about this new Canada-U.S. mission, what three areas will you make your priorities?
AL: First, to facilitate the dialogue, keeping in mind that I’m not responsible for being the voice. The principal voice is the prime minister of Canada, followed by the minister of global affairs and I’m there to help them. We’re also going to be reaching out, not only to parliamentarians. I’ve already spoken to the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and I will be speaking to the Council of Chief Executive Officers, and the list goes on.
Second, though it may not please everybody, part of my role is to live by the mantra of keep calm and carry on. Let’s wait for some facts to emerge before we react. I don’t want to give the impression we’re not doing contingency planning, but in times of uncertainty, it doesn’t take much to cause destabilization. We don’t want to underreact and we don’t want to overreact.
The third is to continue to represent my constituents. They’re well informed, well educated, they’ve got lots of good ideas and they’ve got lots of friends in the U.S.
DM: What members of the Trump administration have you met?
AL: I’ve not been in the White House since president George Bush. The key is to remember that proportionally, a tiny percentage of Trump’s team is actually in political office. We’ve already mentioned the thousands of political appointments he has to make. I know a number of people who claim they’re about to get offered a job. We’ll see. But the jungle drums are alive and well.
DM: Trump, on the one hand, recently told British Prime Minister Theresa May that he’s “100 per cent behind NATO,” but he’s also called the organization obsolete. He has, however, been consistent on one thing: That he will insist that allies pony up more money as a percentage of GDP on military spending. We are 23rd out of 28 NATO countries, so we’re on the black list at the moment. How will Canada respond to that?
AL: You’re quite right. He said both those things and he’s also said he sees the enormous value of NATO. He has said he wants to see nations do more, and do their fair share. One subtle differentiator that our country has as compared to many is that we’ve been alongside the Americans through thick and thin. We go outside the wire. We fight when we have to. We fight hard, we’ve suffered casualties, we’ve shared spilled blood and that’s true for our air, land, sea and special forces. So, unlike some other NATO members, we have a very good reputation with the Americans and we train with them just about all the time.
Right now, there are probably close to 500 Canadian armed forces personnel who are stationed in the U.S. The army sends hundreds, if not thousands, of troops down there; the same is true of the air force and the navy. Our ships interact with their carrier battle groups and our air crews train in the U.S. and the Americans come up to Cold Lake — I think our troops get the better end of that deal.
DM: But what about spending with respect to NATO commitments?
AL: We’ll see. That’s out there, but there’s no detail. You need technical experts and those will show up in due course.
DM: My understanding is that there are different ways to count the money. For example, some countries count the pensions of their military personnel as part of their defence spending. Others don’t.
AL: There are different ways to count the money. And that’s why we need technical experts. I know enough about the subject to know that if you and I were representing different countries and I wanted to make our numbers look bigger, I could. That’s why we need these people with really big brains with lots of experience to sit down and figure it out.
DM: Will our troop commitment in Latvia play in our favour?
AL: I think having troops anywhere will play a role in our favour — whether it’s Latvia or elsewhere. And, of course, we’ve got a mission pending and our minister of national defence and our minister of global affairs will be discussing that possible deployment with their American counterparts, like we always do. When I was commander of the army, there were many times I was down in Washington and I’d be briefed as to where the U.S. army would be sending a battalion or brigade. They would always do us the courtesy of informing us so we could figure out what it meant and maybe they wanted us to consider sending some people along.
DM: With respect to Canada rebuilding its military, in your transformation position, you were critical of bloated bureaucracy and cost overruns.
AL: I stand by that. It wasn’t terribly popular, but it had to be done.
DM: Given that, how should Canada go about rebuilding?
AL: The big priority is the navy and our navy is in a state of emergency. It has been that way for five or six years. The good news is, we’re getting close to further definition of the way ahead to replace the supply ships — we’re leasing them from other countries right now — and our surface combatants. Work is already under way for the coastal patrol vessels and the Arctic patrol, but the big crisis is the navy. That’s where most of our time and effort should go. There’s always stuff for the army and the air force, of course, but I think the CF-18 interim Hornet [Canadian fighter aircraft] buy is a good plan [because] it stabilizes the capability again. Now, it’s all hands on deck for the navy.
DM: Can you briefly discuss one lesson that you learned when you were with the military, maybe the former Yugoslavia, or Afghanistan [to which Leslie returns three times a year for a couple of weeks at a time]?
AL: One thing that I’ve learned — and by the way, it’s not always popular — is when you’ve got to move fast, move really fast. But if you don’t have to actually move fast, then just take a second, pause, figure out what the facts are, come up with a plan that has some options, and then start to move. When the results of a decision are not based on facts, you cause chaos and confusion with the troops. I’m by no means a procrastinator — trust me, I’m not — but you should take the time you have to work out a plan.
The second lesson is that trying to settle things between friends is so much easier than trying to bellow at each other from the rooftops.
DM: So you’d rather have this job than Canada-Russia relations?
AL: [Laughs] Ouch! I’m not going to touch that. Good try, though.
DM: What’s it like to move from the military, to a brief flirtation with consulting, and then to the fast-paced job of parliamentary whip to the now even faster-paced job of Canada-U.S. relations?
AL: I did my 35 years. I left on a Friday and started Monday with a big corporation. It wasn’t really me, though. And I really got intrigued by what I saw happening with Mr. Trudeau — then the leader of the third party — and his team. I dabbled in consulting, but my heart wasn’t in it and then I started knocking on doors. I did that for almost two years. And here we are now. In the whip’s job, I learned a great deal. I had a great team. My role was to keep calm and carry on. They’re all high energy, they’re all very smart, they’re all driven. They’re all really passionate about their constituency and they all want to do their own thing. So it was 184 people. They’re all fast-movers and it wasn’t my job to slow them down, it was just my job to help them succeed.
DM: No speed limits at all?
AL: Maybe a couple.
DM: Last weekend, U.S. President Trump issued a ban on people from seven predominately Muslim countries entering the U.S. There are some Canadians in limbo. What’s happening with them?
AL: Remember how I said it’s sometimes wise to think through what it is you’re trying to achieve? I happen to know the phone lines have been burning up between Ottawa and Washington. We’re trying to keep it at as low a level as possible. We’re trying to see what it means for, say, person A in country B with category C whose child is ill — you see where I’m going? In some cases, those haven’t been thought through, because the staff isn’t there yet to be able to establish that dialogue. So we’re not sure, but we do know that Canadians are not affected in the main. It’s those exceptions where the circumstances aren’t normal that everyone’s still scratching their heads about it.
DM: Canada has volunteered to take people caught in limbo. How many headaches does that cause you in this job?
AL: Well, I think what the prime minister’s done is wise in that he hasn’t said anything for or against any other country. He’s said ‘Here’s what we’re doing.’ We’re staying true to our values and our principles without shouting from the rooftops or getting into unpleasantness. It’s a very Canadian way. It’s kind of like when we deploy. We don’t say ‘They’re doing it wrong’ or ‘We’re doing it right,’ we say ‘Here’s what we’re doing.’