After 4 1/2 years here, Canadian Ambassador Michael Frederick Kergin said his most illuminating lessons came on trips outside the Beltway.
In an interview last Friday, a few days before leaving, Kergin said people tended to look at the rest of the United States through the prism of Washington and the Beltway.
Hatsuhisa Takashima, spokesman for Japan's Foreign Ministry, was in town for talks.
"You also have to see Washington from the outside looking in. What is driving congressmen from their part of the country?" he said. "You have got to learn what motivates these senators and House members. . . . When you approach legislators from their home states, they are very, very open." Those who are not on the standard diplomatic rounds go out of their way to suggest contacts and provide introductions, Kergin said.
The ambassador said he would miss the "high-wire" existence he led here, as well as the richness of the capital's cultural life.
Kergin has had an unusual run as ambassador to Washington, beginning with the drama over hanging chads. Then came the educational process as he and other newcomers took up positions in Washington's body politic, the furor over a ban on prize potatoes from Canada's Prince Edward Island, the Sept. 11 tragedy, and ongoing, complex battles over mad cow disease and duties on lumber between two neighbors with $450 billion worth of trade crossing the border each year.
Canada's previous prime minister, Jean Chretien, helped nix the campaign to stop potato imports because of a blight discovered in one field. Making a toast to President Bush on his first trip to Canada after taking office, Chretien informed Bush he had been served Prince Edward Island spuds at every meal. "So you have not dropped dead yet. It has been two days, and you are still alive," Kergin recalled Chretien saying.
One of the toughest challenges Kergin faced was finding a way to ease the traffic of goods when border controls became more rigid after the Sept. 11 attacks. Costly delays were proving ruinous, so a new structure has been devised between U.S. Homeland Security officials and their Canadian counterparts to speed up customs inspections. New devices -- including computer chips, smart cards that drivers with security clearance can swipe at a distance, and tracking devices that display a truck's content, weight and whether its cargo has been tampered with -- all display data on screens long before vehicles reach the customs check area. In all, Kergin said, 30 action plans have been developed under a protocol called "The Smart Border of the 21st Century."
His favorite experience from travels around the United States involved a festival celebrating Acadians, French settlers in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick who were expelled when the French lost the Seven Years War in 1763. Many were put on boats and came down the Mississippi to New Orleans and made their homes in Louisiana. Over time, Acadians became Cajuns.
To this day, a cultural festival takes place every year during the late summer in Lafayette, La., and the principal performers come down from Canada. Fiddler and dance routines -- partly Irish, partly French -- are inspired by the vibrant Acadian culture.
"It was really fun to see my own countrymen participate in this festival and also 10th-generation Americans rediscovering their Acadian roots there," he said. "A lot of Americans go back to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to visit tombstones of their ancestors."
Upon his return to Ottawa, where he has a home, Kergin said he would probably leave the government and develop "a portfolio of interests that involves teaching and other fields."
Japanese Take Hard Line on Iran
Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hatsuhisa Takashima said in an interview Friday that Iran had to suspend its nuclear activities if it wanted to be treated on an equal footing with other nations.
"If Iran wants to go ahead with uranium enrichment and the reprocessing of spent fuels, it has to clear its name of all international suspicions over its nuclear programs," he said.
"What is very important here is that Iran maintains that the rules of non-proliferation should be applied equally," he added in reference to Iranian objections that Japan, for example, is allowed to proceed with the production of enriched uranium and reprocessing of spent fuel. "We have been carrying out all the rules and regulations under a very strict inspection regime for more than 30 years."
Takashima dismissed unconfirmed intelligence reports that Iran could be ready to test nuclear devices in the next six months. The reports he was aware of, he said, indicated that "within six months' time, Iran will acquire technology to develop nuclear weapons."
Takashima was in Washington for talks over what he described as "the change in the nature of threats" and security concerns in Asia. He explained that the region's Cold War-era concerns over Soviet intervention had been supplanted by more localized threats, stemming from tensions on the Korean Peninsula and the rising friction between China and Taiwan. Those topics came on top of discussions about the scourge of terrorism, the fight against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the situation in Iraq.