An Interview with David Wilkins, former U.S. Ambassador to Canada

canada ambassadorDavid H. Wilkins was nominated by President George W. Bush to be the U.S. Ambassador to Canada on April 27, 2005. He served as ambassador from June 29, 2005 until January 20, 2009, during which time he helped resolve long-standing disagreements between the two countries such as the softwood lumber trade dispute. Wilkins is currently a partner at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP and chairs the Public Policy and International Law practice group. Prior to serving as ambassador, he practiced law and served in the South Carolina House of Representatives from 1980 to 2005. In that time, he served six years as Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, two years as Speaker pro tem, and eleven years as Speaker of the House. Wilkins received his bachelor’s degree at Clemson University and attended law school at the University of South Carolina.

The Politic: Why did you first become involved in government and the Foreign Service?

I first became interested in government at an early age. I was 33 years old, a young lawyer out of the Army. I practiced law with my dad, and I read one day that my Representative was not running again. I decided on the spot that I would run for the State House. I ran as a Republican in a Democratic district; I don’t think many people gave me a chance of winning. I told my wife if she supported me I would only serve two years and get it out of my system and come back. But I had a desire to do something to give back to the community, so I ran, I won, and I had a 25-year career in the South Carolina House of Representatives. On a good day, I felt like I was making a difference and giving things back to the community. On a bad day, I became very frustrated, but there were as many good days as bad. I had no idea I would serve 25 years. I recommend it — it is not the only way to give back to your community, but it certainly is one positive way to do it.

I served as U.S. Ambassador to Canada for almost four years, but I was not a career Foreign Service Officer. I was honored to serve along with career Foreign Service Officers in Ottawa and was very impressed by their service and dedication to pick up their families and move every three years to all parts of the world. I was asked by the President if I was interested in serving as a U.S. ambassador after his reelection. I answered to the White House that I would certainly be honored and consider it, but I wanted to go some place where I would work. I did not want to go basically sit on a beach; I wanted to be involved. I wanted to go to a country that’s important to the United States — one that’s involved in trade. I did my research and concluded that Canada is the number one importer and exporter to the U.S. and obviously a strong ally and very important in energy, security, and other issues. So I specifically requested Canada. After some discussion back and forth, the President and the White House were gracious enough to allow me to be the ambassador to Canada.

The Politic: As the ambassador to Canada, was there one experience, person, or event that greatly influenced one or more of your policies? How so?

When I arrived in Canada in June of 2005, the border had just been closed to Canadian cattle because of a mad cow disease outbreak in Canada. The softwood lumber dispute was at a fever pitch; there were lawsuits going back and forth. Canada didn’t feel like they were being treated fairly. They were winning most of the cases before the World Trade Organization in the NAFTA process, and we were impeding them, ignoring them, and not reaching any accord with them. We were putting some significant tariffs on their lumber imports to the U.S. At the first meeting that the newly-elected Prime Minister of Canada, [Stephen] Harper, had with President Bush in March of 2006, he expressed to the President that softwood lumber was the biggest, number-one issue for Canada in dealing with the U.S. It was critically important to the entire relationship. I was asked by the President about that, and I explained to him that I thought it was the number-one issue. If we wanted Canada to continue to be a close friend and ally to the United States as they have always been — and they actively supported us in Afghanistan from the very get-go — we needed to figure out how to resolve softwood lumber.

Three months after that initial conversation, the Softwood Lumber Agreement was signed for the first time in decades, which put a stop to the litigation and the lawsuits that were going on between the two countries. It was a five-year agreement with the option to extend it two more years. We’re still operating under that agreement. So I would say the most significant thing that shaped my ambassadorship was the resolution of the softwood lumber trade issue. I give President Bush and Prime Minister Harper full credit for recognizing that the issue needed to be resolved and for using the political capital necessary to push the various competing parties toward the middle so that a resolution could be reached.

The Politic: You have mentioned that Canada and the U.S. have the world’s largest trading partnership. What can the U.S. learn from its trade relations with Canada that can be applied to U.S. economic relations with other countries?

In the past couple years, as the economies of all of the G20 countries have suffered, and as economies of most countries have suffered with the Great Recession that we all experienced, Canada probably weathered that storm better than any other G8 country. Their banking institutions are solid; they are more heavily regulated than ours. They are not involved in some of the riskier loans that our financial institutions were involved in. They’re more consolidated. They have basically five major banks, and they were the only G8 country whose banks did not receive a bailout from the government.

Canada is a very fiscally conservative country. They haven’t experienced the housing bubble burst that we did because of the mortgages on their properties. In most years, they have a balanced budget; they don’t run a deficit every year like we and many other countries do. We can learn from their fiscal policies. They got their house in order in the 1980s; when they were running these deficits, they cut back, they spent less money, and they ran a balanced budget until about twelve or thirteen straight years when they had a surplus. Then with the recession, they had been running a deficit. But they have a plan to pay that back, get out of the deficit, and get back to a straight balanced budget within a year or two. They run a pretty tight ship fiscally and we can all take lessons from that.

Parliament Hill, Ottawa
Parliament Hill, Ottawa

The Politic: With the recent immigration bill, a lot of attention has been focused on the U.S.-Mexico border. Do you think more needs to be done to strengthen or secure the U.S.-Canada border?

You always can do more, but I think there is a great distinction and Canadians think there is a great distinction between the northern border of the U.S. and the southern border. We don’t have thousands of Canadians trying to cross our northern border illegally as we do the southern border. Primarily, it is because they have a stable economy and folks have jobs there, ones who work in the U.S. can apply and get work visas and documentation. Still, as with any country, you need to deal with smuggling, contraband, and things of that nature, so we always need to be vigilant. But the northern border in my opinion is relatively secure. The Canadian and U.S. law enforcement border security folks work incredibly closely together, hand in hand. If you go to Detroit-Windsor, you will see Canadian and American law enforcement side by side. Oftentimes, on the bridge, you will see U.S. and Canadian law enforcement folks patrolling the Detroit River in the same boat, which goes back and forth across the boundary line. I really cannot say enough about the cooperation we have with Canada.

The Politic: Is there a specific area or issue on which you’d like to see cooperation increase?

I think you can always do better. We have two concerns with our border: security concerns and trade concerns. When I was the ambassador, I always argued that you could have security and at the same time not hamper your citizens’ trade or travel. It is a careful balancing act. You want, first of all, to make sure your borders are secure, and at the same time do all you can to facilitate both the travel of citizens and the flow of trade back and forth across the border. One of the things that the present ambassador, David Jacobson, is working on has been the compatibility of rules and regulations so that the same cereal box sold in Canada can be sold in the U.S. without having different regulations and rules that apply to the same good on either side of the border. Compatibility in rules and regulations to make trade flow easier is something we can always work on.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Canada Prime Minister Stephen Harper, 2009
U.S. President Barack Obama and Canada Prime Minister Stephen Harper, 2009

The Politic: I also want to discuss your career in politics. In 2000, during your tenure as Speaker of the House in South Carolina, the state debated the presence of the Confederate flag on state buildings and ultimately voted to remove it from the South Carolina Capitol dome. What role would you like to see South Carolina’s Confederate history play in the state today?

It is a part of our history and at the same time, it was the right thing for South Carolina to take the flag representative of a previously existing country, the Confederacy, down. We took it down from the State House, the Senate, and the dome. It was a very controversial issue and a very emotional issue. I am proud to say I led the fight to take it down, and I am proud of the actions of the General Assembly in May of 2000 when we voted to take it down. It came down July 1 in 2000.

But South Carolinians are proud of their history. They are proud of the role they played in the Revolutionary War. They are proud of their ancestors and, like it or not, the Confederacy is part of our history, and we can’t run from that. Hopefully, we can learn from it. South Carolina has made great strides over the last many years in race relations, in understanding diversity better and in promoting diversity, so I am quite proud of our state.

The Politic: You endorsed Rick Perry, and after his exit, Mitt Romney, for president in 2012. Do you have any predictions for the field in 2016?

No, I don’t. It is a wide-open field. Republicans now are trying to narrow identity and rally behind that person that most people feel best represents them. I think the jury is out, and will be out for quite some time, on who that person is and who the next leader of the party is. We will have to see. It is going to be an interesting couple of years.

The Politic: As a political figure and former U.S. Ambassador, how do you feel that America is represented abroad, and are there any elements of American foreign policy that you would want to change?

I don’t have any specifics on the change. Generally, we are represented incredibly well abroad by the brave, smart men and women of the State Department, Foreign Service, and of course our military. As ambassador, I got to work daily with the career Foreign Service folks. I visited our troops and the Canadian troops in Afghanistan with the Canadian Head of Defense and their equivalent of Secretary of Defense, and I cannot say enough about our military folks and our Foreign Service folks. They dedicate their lives to protecting and promoting the best interests of the United States.

Based on my service in Canada and visiting with diplomats and ambassadors from all over the world who are stationed in Ottawa, I did come to the very strong conclusion that the world expects the United States to lead. They do not always agree with us. They don’t always think we’re right, but they always expect us to take a lead role and not just sit on the sidelines. I came away with my experience as U.S. ambassador thinking that the U.S. is expected to step up and lead all world affairs. We need to continue to do that.


Embassy of the United States to Canada:

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Published by Adira Levine

Adira Levine is a staff writer for The Politic from Chicago, Illinois. Contact her at

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