It appears that the average Canadian has realized what most in the federal government have yet to. A poll commissioned by the Centre for Research and Information on Canada found that 44 percent of Canadians believe that Canada should have stronger ties to the United States. It’s an increase of 18 percentage points since March and is at its highest point in three years.
While Canadians are clearly growing concerned about their ties to the United States, Canada’s government has done little to bridge the distance. Thanks in part to undiplomatic talk before and after George W. Bush’s election, the president has yet to make a visit to Canada — outside of attending two international conferences — and Prime Minister Jean Chrétien has only made one visit to the White House. To add injury to insult many prominent Canadians — including officials in the prime minister’s office — seemed to take an “unholy glee” at what happened to the United States on and the days after September 11, 2001, stated historian J.L. Granatstein in a recent speech in Toronto.
“These Canadians and their friends did very serious damage to Canada’s relations with the White House and the State Department,” said Granatstein.
Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham best expressed the federal government’s view on October 30 when he denied relations were in a “deep freeze.” Said Graham, “This is a mug’s game to go into that. The fact of the matter is that when we have specific problems, when we had the electricity blackout, the prime minister phoned up Mr. Bush, he took his call, we worked on it.”
Despite Graham’s assertion, it’s safe to say that relations are at their frostiest since the days of Pierre Trudeau and Ronald Reagan and not surprisingly the problem partly stems from philosophical differences in approaches to policy. As an example, for Canadians foreign policy is about maintaining dialogue at all costs while Americans prefer a more pragmatic approach. Canada is in the business of trying to export its values while the United States is interested in protecting what it determines is in its national interest. As Granatstein pointed out in his October 21 speech, “Values or principles are for individuals, while nations have interests, above all.”
Canada’s “soft power” approach has been a dismal failure. The influence that Canadians believe they wield through kind words and understanding has had remarkably little effect in achieving our goals. Like Europe, Canada’s influence is diminishing because cultural exchanges and foreign aid don’t sway nations like Iran and other unstable rogue states — at the cost of its relationship with the United States. As much as Canadians don’t like to admit it, the velvet glove occasionally must reveal the iron first. As Canada’s ability to project power has diminished over the past two decades, so has its voice. Particularly with the United States.
A fine example of that occurred in the days after September 11, 2001. After Canada’s ally was attacked, one of the Chrétien government’s first proposals wasn’t a military response; it was a suggestion to send hundreds of millions of dollars in economic aid to address poverty in Africa. Virtue trumped national interest yet again and forewarned the United States that Canada’s participation in the war on terrorists would likely be on the minimal side.
Canada’s government must begin to realize that the interests of the United States often coincide with those of Canada. That doesn’t mean that Canada must slavishly follow Washington, D.C.’s line or have policy dictated to it. Occasionally the interests of our two nations will diverge — the United States is a superpower which means that it has global concerns that are sometimes different from Canada’s — and place us on different sides of a debate. Canada should be cognizant, however, that since September 11, 2001, security is a primary concern for its ally and it should keep that in mind when it reacts to American policy.
It’s Canadian tradition to oppose American policy on the grounds that it is both noble and defines Canada. We like to believe that we’re more moral than the United States simply because we reflexively criticize our ally’s actions. As Granatstein argued, there “is no shame agreeing with the United States when its actions accord with our national interests and in working to advance those interests with the Americans.” Canada’s sovereignty isn’t at risk when we work with the United States and the benefits — whether security or trade — far outweigh the costs.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.