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Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade/Library and Archives Canada.

Allan Gotlieb


“A skillful and respected player in the complex world of Washington power politics.”

Jack Granatstein
Professor Emeritus of History, York University.


Allan Gotlieb brought Canadian diplomacy into the 21st century. While he would become Canada’s longest-serving Ambassador to the United States, serving from 1981 to 1989, Gotleib arrived in Washington to find that business was not running as usual. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s “Third Option” had strained relations with the United States, while the machinery of American diplomacy had also changed. Congressional committees, which ratified treaties and agreements, now held more influence over international negotiations. Gotlieb took a new approach. Where his predecessors had worked primarily through contacts at the State Department, Goltieb reached out to members of Congress, state governors, and their staffers. He cultivated a relationship with the Washington media and hosted endless social events with the help of his wife Sondra. This public-facing approach marked a departure from the traditional cloistered world of statecraft. Under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Gotlieb secured agreements on the Acid Rain Accord and the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. The success of Gotlieb’s public diplomacy set a model for diplomats working in an increasingly open world of digital media and communications.

Allan Gotlieb (left) stands alongside U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and U.S. Trade Representative Clayton Yeutter, as U.S. President Ronald Reagan signs the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement in September 1988. Ronald Reagan Library/C49504-9

Gotlieb began his career with the Department of External Affairs in 1957. His intellectual depth and toughness quickly propelled him to the position of Assistant Under-Secretary of State and legal advisor wherein he played a leading role in protecting Ottawa’s position in the growing relationship between Quebec and France. At the age of only forty he was appointed the first Deputy Minister of Communications and then Deputy Minister of Manpower and Immigration. Gotlieb’s experience working in different portfolios greatly influenced his approach to public diplomacy. He returned to the DEA as Under-Secretary of State in 1977 and focused his efforts on making the department a central agency of the federal government. His skill and professionalism as a diplomat are reflected in his ability to serve as Ambassador to Washington under three prime ministers. After retiring from the civil service, Gotlieb served as Chairman of the Canada Council from 1989 to 1994.

Gotlieb was born in Winnipeg in 1928. He studied history as an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley and completed a law degree at Harvard University, where he edited the Harvard Law Review. He pursued graduate studies at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. Gotlieb was made a Companion of the Order of Canada for his work promoting Canada’s position in the world.

Further Reading:

Gotlieb, Allan E. The Washington Diaries, 1981-1989. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2007.

“I’ll be with you in a minute, Mr Ambassador”: The Education of a Canadian Diplomat in Washington. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.

Gotlieb, Sondra. Washington Rollercoaster. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1990.

Stein, Janice Gross, and Colin Robinson ed. Diplomacy in the Digital Age: Essays in Honour of Ambassador Allan Gotlieb. Toronto: Signal, 2011.

Tributes to Allan Gotlieb

On April 18, 2020, Allan Gotlieb passed away in Toronto. Here are links to some of the many tributes written in his memory:

Andrew Cohen, Visionary diplomat Allan Gotlieb was ‘a shrewd player of the power game

Jeremy Kinsman, Death of Visionary, Allan Gotlieb, 1928-2020

Colin Robertson, On AEG 

Colin Robertson, Gotlieb revolutionized Canadian diplomacy with our primordial partner

David Shribman, Allan Gotlieb: A revered outsider in Washington’s inner circle


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