Q&A: Colin Powell "on the Upswing"

Gen. Colin Powell shares his views on the state of U.S.-Canada relations.

Gen. Colin Powell, the 65th U.S. secretary of state before leaving the Bush administration, in 2004, was the highest-ranking African-American to have served in any U.S. government. The son of Jamaican immigrants, Powell spent 35 years in the U.S. Army, serving as national security adviser to Ronald Reagan and rising to the rank of four-star general. He was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 to 1993. Powell oversaw U.S. troops in Operation Desert Storm during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and later spearheaded U.S. efforts to solve regional and civil conflicts in a world rocked by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Powell spoke to senior writer Zena Olijnyk about Canada-U.S. relations before a scheduled public forum in Toronto on the same topic with Frank McKenna, Canada's former ambassador to the United States.

Canadian Business: How would you describe the nature of the relationship between the U.S. and Canada?

Colin Powell: Canada's one of our most important relationships. In fact, economically, it's probably our most important relationship. The integration of the U.S. and Canadian economies has benefited both peoples for a long period of time. And even though the relationship has had its up and downs through the years–certainly 2003 and the Iraq problem was one of those down moments–I think it is good. It appears to be on the upswing now, with a new prime minister coming in who seems committed to improving the relationship. Two sovereign democratic nations are going to have disagreements, but the real question is: What is going to keep them together and what are the values that Canada and the U.S. both share? This will get us through the disappointments that come through from time to time.

CB: What impact does the political relationship between Canada and the U.S. have on the economies in both countries?

CP: Both countries have thrived over the years. I was in the Reagan administration when we came up with the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. I saw that grow into the North American Free Trade Agreement. I was with this current administration in the beginning when it wanted to see that expanded to a free-trade area of the Americas, which is proving to be difficult, but nevertheless a worthy goal.

CB: How do you think NAFTA has played out for the U.S. and Canada?

CP: I don't think anyone can say that NAFTA has not benefited both peoples–for raising our standards of living, allowing our economies to grow, and showing the world that North America remains the engine of international economic commerce. NAFTA has demonstrated the flexibility for both countries to take advantage of the growth of new industries and adjust when a dislocation is caused by the death of old industries. The real challenge is not between the U.S. and Canada, but the U.S. and Canada and the emerging world–especially India and China–or the integration of more countries into the European Union.

CB: But what about the current softwood lumber dispute?

CP: Both sides took very strong positions and would not yield. There is a major dispute over the subsidization of lumber and the actual cost of lumber, and it has gone to a variety of venues to try to resolve it. We should use softwood lumber as a metaphor for the entire relationship of U.S.-Canada trade; I have been through similar disputes over shakes and shingles, potatoes, maple syrup and the Northwest Passage. And while I don't want to speak for the current U.S. administration, because I'm no longer directly involved, I think the softwood lumber issue will eventually be resolved. Both sides appear to be trying, and I understand that things are getting close. People are always saying Canada is fighting us over this and that. But I'm delighted that at least we're talking about disputes over potatoes and softwood lumber and not engaging in nuclear exchanges.

CB: On a personal level, what are your current business interests?

CP: I have been a partner with Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, one of the more successful venture capital companies in the Silicon Valley. It's not a large company, but it has been very successful. They have helped launch Google, Sun [Microsystems], Netscape and AOL. We are interested in startups in the areas of information technology, energy and biomedical devices. I provide advice to some of these young companies, especially their young leaders, and tell them about the ways of the world and the ways of Washington and what I see happening, so they can shape their startup activities. They are very interested in politics and want to know what our political leaders will be looking at and how they will be responding to world events.

CB: Any other business interests?

CP: I'm also with another company here in Washington, Revolution Health Group, led by Steve Case, the former chairman of AOL. We are looking at consumer-driven health care: how to give consumers greater control over how they spend their health-care dollars and giving them greater choice. We're looking at how we can serve companies and associations that are looking for alternatives to company health plans, or help companies put together better plans giving their employees more choice as to how much they can spend on their health. Right now we're buying some small Internet companies already playing in this place, and trying to put them together into a single portal.

CB: So what are your views on the Canadian health-care system?

CP: Americans have for many years looked to the north when it comes to health care, and we see many things that are interesting. But we also realize that the Canadian way has its own share of difficulties. And now I am reading that people in Canada are seeking alternatives to government-sponsored health care and looking for private alternatives.

CB: From your position on the sidelines, how do you see the current situation in Iraq?

CP: I'm a little concerned, because I think the political process is moving too slowly. We need to have a government come together there quickly. And we have to build up Iraqi military and police forces so they can take over the security responsibilities. But they've got to be done in tandem. We don't want to build up military forces and not have a central government for which it works. We have to get the political process moving there much faster. The U.S. also has to reduce its troop strength there. We can't keep this level deployed there forever. But it's too hard to give a deadline.

CB: With your high profile over the past two decades, have you ever given serious thought to running for political office?

CP: I never have developed an interest or passion for elected political office. I'm still an infantry officer that just happened to develop a passion for public service. I don't rule out doing something in some capacity in government again, but not in an elected position.