Better to Be Seen and Not Heard?

Steve Saideman on why Canadians should be happy their country wasn't mentioned in the debate.
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October 23, 2012
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My Canadian friends on Twitter noted that neither U.S. President Barack Obama nor Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney mentioned Canada during this final debate – one focused on foreign policy. Sure, I understand that Canadians want their country to be considered important and relevant, but the foreign-policy debates are a lot like golf: You want your score to be low, not high. Pakistan, for instance, got heaps more attention – does Canada want to be put in the same category? No. Given the various contexts and agenda items, there really were only a few ways Canada could have shown up as an issue in this campaign, and none would have been that thrilling to Canadians.

Energy independence. In the American context, becoming “energy independent” almost sounds like the U.S. owns Canada’s oil reserves. Of course, what is meant is that Canada is a far more reliable oil exporter to the U.S. than countries in the Mideast, but it could be read as American designs on Canadian sovereignty. Not good.

Border security. Since many Americans still think the 9/11 terrorists came through Canada, I am pretty sure that a discussion of border security would raise more fears, rather than illuminate the security of the border.

Hardwood lumber. Just kidding. Pretty sure foresters are not a big swing group in this election, unlike the tire industry in Ohio.

NATO burden-sharing. Funny, a U.S. foreign-policy debate and NATO was not name-checked at all. The danger of hoping Canada’s contributions to NATO get mentioned in this race is that the focus could be on Canada leaving Afghanistan early, rather than on the key role it played in Kandahar for several years, or its outsized contribution over Libya.

Arctic sovereignty. Romney could have focused on the Russian menace, but probably realized that swing American voters are not as fond of the Cold War as John Mearsheimer is. Otherwise, Americans are pretty unaware of the Arctic sovereignty issue.

Climate change. Shhh. Neither nominee wants to talk about that at all, and Canadians would not want their country mentioned in any conversation about climate change, given where it stands on Kyoto.

We could go on.

So, while Canadians do not want their country to be an afterthought, I think they would prefer to be in the club of NATO, Germany, Japan, Australia, and the more functional parts of the world than in the club of Pakistan, Egypt, and Iran. That is, the debate, which had a very narrow agenda, focused on problem spots and controversial issues. Do Canadians want their country to be considered a problem spot? To be a controversial item on the American foreign-policy agenda? Of course not. 

Despite some assertions this past summer that there is a crisis in U.S.-Canadian relations, the reality is that the two countries get along rather well. They face a similar good problem: Their economies are doing better than those in Europe. They also face a similar challenge: As bi-coastal countries (or tri-coastal, for Canada), they need to focus more on Asia – and China, in particular – than in the past. So, while there have been some minor tussles over pipelines, there is more that the two countries share than there is that divides them.

Besides the reality that Canada is not a trouble spot, Canadians should also want to avoid being mentioned in this kind of debate because the discussion is so shallow, and even deceptive. Did anyone learn anything about the world, or about American foreign policy? “Kill the bad guys” is not that sophisticated a discussion point. And while I loved Obama’s comeback to Romney’s line about the Navy of 1916 (which is just about the least informative take one can have on military spending), the reality is that the U.S. still stocks plenty of bayonets, even if it now relies on far fewer horses (dogs, on the other hand, are more useful these days). Superficial discussions aside, there was much that went unsaid: Neither candidate really addressed the reality that the Afghan transition plan is deeply flawed, for instance.

So, while I can understand why Canadians would have liked their country to receive a bit of the spotlight in this debate, Canadians should keep in mind that this kind of spotlight actually directs more heat than light.