Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Canadian and American Relations

The American Ambassador to Canada took a shot at PM Martin yesterday, perhaps warranted. The problem with the shot -- whether deserved or undeserved -- is that it occurred during an election campaign. As a result, the impact will be politicized and, in large measure, lost. The Liberal Party will don the mantel of defenders of Canadian sovereignty and play off the vaguely anti-American sentiments most centrist and left wing Canadians. Conservatives will use the opportunity to illustrate that this is another example of the Liberals bumbling Canada's most important foreign relation. The popular base of each party will walk away feeling morally superior with their views of each other (American toadies, incompetent fools) confirmed. This is a shame because these comments actually present and important opportunity to evaluate the shifting parameters of Canada's relationship with the US. Let me address this issue but let me first address the issue of the comments themselves.

I want to say that the comments by the American Ambassador were, well, intemperate. He read from a text and did not do a good job reading. However, they were understandable. Canadians might not think so but put this in context. The Canadian PM had just publicly criticized the American government at an international conference and before the world community. In one set of comments, PM Martin singled out the US for its failure to agree to the Kyoto Accord, ignoring the fact that other countries have not signed on to the Accord and neglecting to discuss what the US is actually doing with regard to the ecology. (To be sure, I think the US's record here is not good at all but I think this point could be made with a balanced assessment rather than a Kyoto or nothing approach.) In addition to this Mr. Martin appeared on stage with former President Bill Clinton, viewed by Republicans as an arch enemy. Imagine the reverse? How would we expect Canada to react if the US President publicly attacked Canada, do so without context, before the world community and in the presence of someone the government of Canada regarded as their arch enemy, say Brian Mulrony or Stephen Harper? You get my point: the reaction of the American Ambassador was over the top, but it is understandable.

What might be more important than this, however, is the reaction itself. Conservatives like to believe that they can establish a better relationship with the US than can Liberals and this is the one of the reasons, they say, that they should be elected. This might be true but I suspect it would be true at the expense of making independent decisions in terms of international and economic affairs. For instance, I have no doubt that Canadian/American relations would be in much better shape today had Canada participated -- as the Conservatives wanted to -- in the invasion of Iraq (something Conservative leader Stephen Harper now feels would have been a mistake as he stated that a Conservative government would not send military forces to Iraq). However, would this have been the right decision? Likewise, Conservatives say they will solve the softwood lumber dispute. How? The US government has clearly said it wants a "negotiated" settlement that is set outside the rule of international trade established by the international community and the trade agreements Canada has signed. Canada's position is now and always has been: we want to stick to the international agreements we signed as the basis of settlement. To settle this issue, then, the Conservatives would need to abandon trade agreements and accept something less than ideal -- likely some sort of import restriction -- as the price of resolution. Is this a good idea?

There are other problems, as well. The US and Canada don't see eye to eye on the nature of international threats. The US government, at least, seems to have serious reservations about changes to the Canadian marriage law and about proposed changes to the laws governing the use of marijuana. There are lingering problems over sovereignty in Arctic waters, river diversion projects in the US, etc., the role of the UN, among other things.

Let us be clear: Canada has been a good ally of the US. Anyone who doubts this doesn't know their recent history. But, the series of disputes between Canada and the US point to something else; they point to an increasing divergence of interests between the countries. Canadian-American relations since WW II were, I suspect, not easy but were made easier than they otherwise might have been by the fact that Canadians and Americans saw eye to eye on most significant issues: the Cold War, the development of the welfare state, the nature of the good middle class life, etc. Today, that is not the case. Canadians and Americans are not shockingly different from each other, but their similarities are no longer so pronounced. And, there is the perception (at least) that their international interests are no longer the same.

Is this something to be lamented. I honestly don't know. Personally, I think it would be good to have a community of interest between Canada and the US, but if we can't well, that is the price of independence and that is a price I am willing to pay. But ... and this is the important point: discussion of this issue involves more than proclaiming that one is in favour of Canadian sovereignty. Anyone can do that. Heck, all political leaders in Canada state that on a regular basis. The issue is what type of relationship Canada should establish with the United States as it involves itself in the process of re-affirming a separate and distinct national project in North America. This is a question that is harder to address, particularly for the Canadian left, which means, right now, the NDP.

While I acknowledge that the NDP has little chance of forming a government at the federal level, its lack of policy design viz the US is disturbing. In effect, the NDP reacts to American developments and stacks out ground in opposition to what it sees as American governmental support for capitalism and imperialism. Fair enough but, again, that's easy to do. Who isn't opposed to imperialism? (I'll leave off a discussion of capitalism for another day.) The NDP - and the Canadian left in general -- needs to work out its policies in this area. It needs to figure out, for example, how -- if it were elected -- a socialist Canada would interact with a capitalist US. How will we manage our increasing divergences on social issues (gun control, environmentalism, women's right to control their own bodies, multiculturalism, the role of religion in the schools). One might find the views of Republican Americans odd in this regard (or, I suppose one might not), but finding them odd, backward, out-of-step with the modern age, or whatever does not solve the problem and does not clarify relations. What the NDP needs is its own think tank which can begin by addressing precisely this issue. The American Ambassador and Paul Martin have, I think unintentionally, afforded Canadians an opportunity to consider the character and scope of our relations with the US. The Canadian left should not miss this opportunity.

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