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It was hardly news at all, so slight a ripple did it make. It went unmentioned almost everywhere. The papers and the networks ignored it almost completely. Indeed, the announcement is quite unremarkable: President Bush will meet with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien in Washington on Monday.

But buried inside that flat sentence is a mountain of diplomacy - and a case study in the enduring influence of established international relationships, in the power of symbolism, and in the mechanics of George W. Bush's Washington.

For weeks, as Washington watched the new president assemble his administration, fight for the confirmation of his Cabinet officers, prepare his inaugural address and polish his education initiative, a quiet drama was under way beneath the surface.

Bush, a former Texas governor whose only real foreign-policy experience involved relations with Mexico, planned to make his first international visit south of the border. But that decision, known in capital circles long before it was announced in public, sent shock waves north of the border. The last three presidents, including Bush's father, made their first international trips to Canada.

Most Americans neither care nor notice where the president travels, let alone where he goes first. But the Canadians cared - and noticed. Canada and the United States, partners in NAFTA and NATO, share the largest trading relationship in the history of civilization, accounting for more than four-fifths of Canadian trade. In January, Canada's new foreign minister, John Manley, complained that "Canada doesn't usually hit the radar screen."

But Canada's diplomats here in Washington shoved themselves onto the radar screen, pushing the Bush transition team, nudging the State Department, making it clear that Canada simply could not be slighted. The Mexico trip was already scheduled for Feb. 16. That couldn't be moved. Still, the Canadians insisted. They were to play host to the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City April 20-22. The Canadian and American leaders had to confer.

In the end, Chretien was willing to fly here 11 days before Bush was scheduled to meet with Vicente Fox, the new president of Mexico. And so while Bush's first steps outside the United States will be in Mexico, his first handshake with a foreign leader will be with Canada's prime minister.

The impetus for that decision wasn't merely Chretien's pride. It was also Bush's interest. The only thing Washington wants to do less than talk about Canadian-American relations is to bungle Canadian-American relations. The State Department wants to keep "the relationship," as Canadians and Americans call it, warm - chummy even; the last thing it needs is trouble along a trouble-free border.

Under the first President Bush, relations between the two nations were smooth. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney enjoyed a close relationship with the Bushes, passing an afternoon in the president's cigarette boat off the Maine coast.

But the younger George Bush worried Canadians, who noticed that he called Fox to congratulate him on his imminent inauguration but did not call Chretien after the prime minister won his third term. During the Michigan primary, a camera crew from the satirical Canadian television show "This Hour Has 22 Minutes" asked Bush his reaction to "Prime Minister Poutine's" assessment that the Texas governor would win the presidency.

"I appreciate his strong statement," Bush said. "He understands I believe in free trade. He understands I want to make sure our relationship with our most important neighbor to the north is strong."

The prime minister's name, of course, isn't "Poutine," which is actually a Quebec snack, french fries drenched in cheese curd and gloppy gravy.

Canadians, believing that Americans consider them disposable, forgettable and interchangeable, are understandably sensitive to these sorts of slights.

The Bush administration is basking in the glow of all it accomplished in its first two weeks in office. But what may be really revealing isn't what it achieved, but what it avoided. Chretien could easily have come another day. But Monday represents a deft compromise, saving face (and embarrassment) for everyone.

Boston Globe

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