Tuesday, March 25, 2008
David Wilkins, the United States’ Ambassador to Canada, spent Christmas Eve 2007 under a full moon in the Afghan desert. Wilkins’ gratitude for Canada’s leading role in the Afghanistan campaign has been part of his public pronouncements for some time, so when he was invited to accompany Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Chief of Defence Staff General Rick Hillier to Kandahar, the Ambassador jumped at the chance to thank Canadian troops in person.
“It was one of the most impressive things I have ever seen,” Wilkins says of his time with the troops. “It had a profound effect on me. I got to see first-hand their spirit, their morale and their willingness to do the tough jobs. They are convinced they are making a difference. They believe in their mission and that democracy will take hold and grow in Afghanistan if we give these people … the time necessary to establish a free country. It was an awe-inspiring trip. I wouldn’t take anything for it.”
Wilkins’ admiration for the Canadian Forces extends right up to Gen. Hillier himself, of whom he says, “This guy is the real deal. He is unbelievable. He connects with his troops. We could all go to school on how he does it. He is absolutely a soldier’s soldier, and they just love him.”
Indeed, it was on Hillier’s initiative that Ambassador Wilkins found himself under that big desert moon when Christmas arrived: “About midnight, after the troops were fed, General Hillier said ‘I’m going to go walk around and say Merry Christmas to the guys at the guard posts.’ Full moonlight, you could see forever. These guys, out in the most desolate of areas, professional, in good spirits, standing guard on Christmas Eve — incredible. I was saying ‘Joyeux Noël’ and they were saying ‘Merry Christmas.’ ”
In his office, Wilkins displays one of the most prized souvenirs from his trip: a picture of himself and Tim Horton’s founder Ron Joyce serving coffee and doughnuts to Canadian troops in Kandahar on Christmas Day. One would be hard-pressed to conjure a more iconic image of the friendship and shared values of Canada and the United States.
Wilkins’ path to one of America’s most important diplomatic posts began in 1998, when he befriended then-Governor George W. Bush of Texas, who was contemplating a White House run. At the time, Wilkins was Speaker of the South Carolina House of Representatives — the first Republican to hold this lofty post in the Palmetto State since Reconstruction.
Wilkins served as co-chair of the South Carolina Bush for President Campaign in 2000, and was state chairman of the president’s re-election effort in 2004. The personal friendship between the two men remains strong, each of them speaking highly of the other, though Wilkins is well aware of how many Canadians feel about Bush.
“I know what the feelings are up here about my president, but Canadians should know that for the last seven years, this president has vigorously supported NAFTA, free trade, supported them when the border was closed because of the [Mad Cow] scare, and worked very hard publicly and in the courts system to re-open the border as quickly as possible. He has, obviously, played a major role in keeping North America safe … He has been a friend to Canada. And I don’t think he gets that appreciation.”
Since presenting his diplomatic papers to then-Prime Minister Paul Martin on June 29, 2005, Ambassador Wilkins has shown extraordinary dedication to his role. He has logged over a half-million kilometres in the air over Canada, visiting every province and territory, meeting many thousands of Canadians, always giving thanks for the relationship this country shares with the United States.
“My goal from the first day has been to accentuate the positive and leave the relationship stronger than it was when I found it,” he reports. “The relationship is so good, so positive, that it is easy for all of us to take it for granted. So, when one or two issues come up that are irritants, we tend to spend a lot of effort and publicity on those issues. I sometimes remind my Canadian friends that it’s important for all of us sometimes to take a deep breath and appreciate what we have in common than look for issues that divide us.”
While maintaining friendships at the pinnacles of political power, Wilkins seems instinctively to know that greatness comes from simple goodness. He extends warmth and sincerity to heads of state and simple citizens alike, evincing the crucial common touch of a leader. His admiration for the inherent decency of both countries comes across in official speeches and casual conversations, revealing a refreshing seamlessness between his public and private views.
In his capacity as the United States’ representative to Canada, Wilkins serves at the pleasure of the president. This means that his term will end round about the time a new administration takes over the White House in January 2009. As Canadians prepare to say goodbye to Ambassador Wilkins, we may also want to say thanks.