US-Canada issues hardly pique the general population’s interest, particularly south of the 49th parallel. While a ciritcal partner in NATO, NAFTA, and a host of other acronyms, Americans love to take their northern neighbors for granted. After all, the two countries have so much in common culturally and economically. Their leaders nod in sync on every issue; two political peas in a pod. Keystone XL, that controversial pipeline from Alberta to Texas, was the exception that proves the rule, a meaningless lovers’ quarrel to be resolved forthwith. So, how does one make something controversial that’s important but inherently boring?
Canadians Fen Osler Hampson and Derek H. Burney, professor and diplomat, respectively, emit their anxiety over the perceived decline in US-Canada relations in Foreign Affairs, America’s preeminent foreign affairs journal.1 And it’s all President Obama’s fault. They say that the American president acts aloof, has “jilted" Canada, and presided over a pattern of "neglect." Such ignominious behavior—which includes not promoting a better bridge to Detroit and hypocrisy on agricultural subsides 2 —will not be tolerated, the authors write, and Canada will be forced to turn toward Asia for “more reliable economic partners.” Not-so-cryptic speak for: Prime Minister Harper will support an oil pipeline through British Columbia.
And, we’re back to the “Where’s Waldo?” argument of any annoyed Canuck (including Harper): Obama should have approved the Keystone XL pipeline. This gripe starts, ends, and is the raison d’être (happy now, Québecois?) of the piece. In between, the authors try to develop a sense of urgency yet, stereotypes of northern honesty presiding, they hedge so much of the supposed “mistreatment” perpetrated by the US that the argument stagnates rather quickly. The pipeline will be approved eventually, but Canadians were “reawakened” to the dangers of exclusively trading with the US. Keep in mind, the year or two delay won’t affect oil exports. As for the bridge between Ontario and Michigan … it will get built, if more slowly than planned. Those farm subsidies were indeed preventing Canadian entrance into the Trans-Pacific Partnership until they weren’t a few days ago. Much like US-Israel relations, the argument derives from a skewed sense of relativity. Since Ottawa and DC do not agree on every issue immediately, something must be wrong.
Trade being the dominant issue in US-Canada relations, Hampson and Burney point to the simple and inane statistic that only 68% of Canadian trade in 2010 was with the US. Left unexplained is how this is attributable to American policy rather than a redistribution of global wealth. In fact, the latter is explained well, if inadvertently, by the authors: the United States, once “the only game in town,” is now in a recession and Ottawa is courting the rising powers of the East to invest in Canadian minerals. If this is a problem, blame the economic downturn, the space between the lines tells us, not US policies towards Canada. In fact, one could just as convincingly make the case that US free trade priorities over the past three decades made it easier for Canadians to trade with China, Mexico, and Germany.
Friendship, though, is not based solely on pecuniary concerns. But nor can it rest on a strict quid pro quo, especially in a relationship as long and peaceful as that between Canada and the United States.3 The two countries fought together in Afghanistan and Libya as part of NATO missions that Canada saw as in its national interest. Their decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was in the works before President Obama took office. The authors say that improving bilateral relations encouraged these interventions (a far cry from Brian Urquhart's vision); they imply that America is shirking some debt to the Harper government by not supporting Canada's Arctic claims—which might be solidified with stealth snow mobiles, seriously—or UN Security Council ambitions. And while the six F-18s Harper sent to the Mediterranean helped a mission that other NATO allies called for, surely the idealism behind the Libya operation (Responsibility to Protect was a Canadian idea) shields the Washington from such criticism.
Canadians are often bemused at how little Americans know about their country—it can be quite funny. By contrast, Hampson and Burney appear to have forgotten the domestic political game in the US. You know, the one that drives a man to attend 160+ fundraisers over a series of months that, thankfully, has no equivalent in Canada. Constituencies must be temporarily pleased and maximum cynicism will be used to do it. The professor and diplomat fear that President Obama has ignored their country. Yet recent events show that the US-Canada relationship isn’t “lost” over lack of respect or common interests—but rather that it isn’t immune to other political concerns.
It takes a cri du coeur to remove briefly the snore from North American international relations. A great crisis or dreaded “paradigm shift,” however, seems very remote. We hesitate to call this piece a noble effort, though it might serve a purpose should Obama win a second term. Instead, we wonder if NBC Sports Olympic Games info-propaganda isn’t more accurate.
Web-only article, but still. ↩
Note to Hampson and Burney: we know you’re pissed no Canadian team has won a Stanley Cup since 1993, but you really couldn’t shrug off insincerity on ag subsidies?! Everyone lies about ag subsidies! ↩
We would be remiss not to note here that 2012 marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 and the failure of the US invasion of Canada, which basically proved one point: Don’t ever lose at anything to a Canuck. They’ll never let you forget it (even if the most powerful nation in the world at the time was on their side). ↩