Canada’s top foreign policy is one closest to home

This year’s election campaign needs to address strengthening U.S. and North American relations.
By: /
June 1, 2015
Obama and Harper

Jeremy Kinsman writes in advance of this week’s panel, “Canadian Foreign Policy and the Next Federal Election,” hosted by the Canadian International Council, National Capital Branch, in Ottawa. 

As often happens after a government has been in office for a decade, the dominant question for most voters in 2015 is whether it’s time for a change, though the evidence is that their votes are split between the New Democratic Party and the Liberals.

Does foreign policy compute as an election issue? It would be unusual. Over the years Canadians had a consensus view of Canada’s international role. We shared pride in our builder’s diplomatic skills that we applied to the construction of a multilateral system for international security and trans-national cooperation in an increasingly interdependent world. It was an idealistic vocation, often challenged by international political realities, but also something of a hedge against our overwhelming dependence on the bilateral relationship with the United States.

This is the one existential relationship imposed by geography on whose importance we have no choice. In 2015, its political tone is more or less unpleasant. Will restoring a positive Canada-U.S. relationship be an election issue?

In a world widely seen to be less predictable, more competitive, less friendly, and arguably more dangerous, will our political leaders offer aspirational ideas for shoring up our North American neighbourhood? It shouldn’t be meant as a stockade, but in the sense that Ronald Reagan’s intuitive vision intended, to build a shared community that could ”show the world by example that the nations of North America are ready, with an unswerving commitment to freedom, to seek new forms of accommodation to meet a changing world.”

To do so, we need to face down some ghosts from the past.

Framing U.S. policy as foreign policy

Until the early 1970s, Canadian governments shunned the notion of a bilateral external “policy” toward the U.S. as being academic. Officials of the day saw cross-border issues as essentially domestic economics to be managed pragmatically case-by-case. Potential conflict areas would be subdued in dedicated commissions and regulatory bodies to insulate our specific interests from being out-muscled and out-levered by the much larger U.S. partner.

Foreign policy would be about the rest of the world, where we were like-minded partners against a darker Cold War background, though we had a Canadian vocation for consensus-building the U.S. and the world respected.

The war in Vietnam — from which Canada stayed aloof — and unilateralist U.S. economic policy under Richard Nixon tested our assumptions of like-mindedness. They shock-started a government search for greater Canadian self-sufficiency, channeled through federal programs to upgrade what many saw as our “branch-plant” economic status. In foreign policy, we tried to strengthen relationships around the world and redoubled efforts in the United Nations and elsewhere to strengthen the multilateral system.

The historical precedent

Brian Mulroney won office in 1984 on the public’s cyclical wish for change of government, and also on a platform to moderate Canada’s economic nationalism, though he was careful to insulate our cultural industries.

The next election in 1988 was the one in which a foreign policy issue was decisive, as Mulroney sought a mandate to conclude with the U.S. Free Trade Agreement, opposed by Liberals, in what Leader John Turner called “the fight of my life,” and by the NDP, egged on by cultural nationalists who feared that more economic integration would weaken Canada’s sense of self.

The debates of those years created political DNA and left scar tissue that still mark our political psychology, a wariness about “too much” closeness to the U.S. that waned with Canada-friendly and popular U.S. presidents but flared again over the unilateralist Bush agenda. Canada’s abstention from the fatefully misrepresented invasion of Iraq is cited as a benchmark Liberal position of principle.

A new North America, a new global order

This election needs to take account of the fact that over the last quarter century, the givens of the relationship have substantially changed. A sense of “North America” began to emerge. Canadian entrepreneurship flourished under NAFTA. Our enhanced integration with the U.S. was that of a supply-chain partner, not an economic dependency. Fears of identity loss proved unfounded.

But the positive picture did not survive U.S. anger and pain from 9/11. U.S. borders became thickened beyond recognition for Canadians. “Security trumps trade,” as a Bush ambassador put it. Its imperatives of homeland protection prompted the Canadian government to mimic U.S. exclusionary rules. We all went inward.

Meanwhile, the U.S. financial system crashed, at a time when China, India, and others were already shouldering the U.S. out of its clear global economic dominance. The military hegemony the U.S. had enjoyed since the collapse of the Soviet Union couldn’t obtain victory in debilitating wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Elsewhere, the U.S. began to bump up against Chinese and Russian assertiveness.  Islamic jihadists mounted a real threat to near enemies in the cauldron of the Middle East and lunged at their “far” enemies abroad.

Obama — a U.S. president popular in Canada — has tried with partial success to limit U.S. exposure to these changes abroad, drawing on greater multilateral efforts to spread the burden, deepen international cooperation, and negotiate conflict settlements, such as on Iran’s nuclear capability, while repairing financial rules at home and restoring economic growth. His internationalist themes are those Canadians recognize as familiar, though the Harper Government has abruptly curtailed Canada’s creative engagement in multilateral institution-building and has been a skeptical bystander on President Obama’s pursuit of negotiated settlements to de-fuse dangerous Palestinian, Iranian, and Ukrainian issues.

An influence too valuable to ignore

Meanwhile Canada-U.S. relations are at a low point, at least at the political top. Ostensibly, the reason sits with the President’s repeated deferral of a decision to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, but the reality lies in a composite of disconnects between the two political leaders that are ideological, issue-based, and personal. Canada can’t afford the continued absence of influence in Washington, at least in the White House. Advice we “sit out” the rest of the Obama Presidency misses the opportunity to get something done in common now. Identifying and pursuing such a project should be a central topic of debate in the run-up to the Canadian election October 19.

What could such a project be? Recommitment to the idea of the North American community, not as a sanctuary in a less friendly world, but as a platform for shared prosperity, an improved competitive position internationally, and as a model of cooperation for others, to the point of being “first movers” on some over-arching trans-national problems. Instead of cancelling a “Three Amigos” Summit, as just happened, Canada should host an ambitious Summit of Neighbours.

Of course, it will mean Canada, as host, has to able to come up with a common project-model for the all-important climate change/energy swirl of issues and not duck the reality of this challenge as we did in our wasted chairmanship of the Arctic Council. Provincial governments are increasingly ready, most notable Alberta’s. In fact, belated three-way talks with the U.S. and Mexico are finally being initiated through a ministerial-level working group on climate change and energy issues. Let’s hear more and do more with that initiative.

Let’s hear more from our candidates for national leadership on the topic of strengthening our North American neighbourhood. We all know there will be resistance within the polarized and dysfunctional U.S. political system, from Democratic protectionists resisting trade and economic integration, and from Republican nativists in denial about the imperatives for greater cooperation across the board with Mexico. But there is also a broad swath of Americans increasingly apt to value among the country’s greatest assets its good fortune in its neighbours.

Among Canadians, let’s get over the mind-ghosts from a past when we feared greater integration of purpose would deny our cultural and social legacies or oblige us to get into lock-step on U.S. adventurism abroad. We have proved neither is true if we are true to our distinctive selves. We have also shown a model of financial probity and competence in public policy many Americans admire. We can be better partners of Mexico, as well. Overall, we can be better leaders in and from North America than we know, and it will help us strengthen relationships elsewhere.

North America is an idea as well as a space. We share one feature pluralistic societies need more than any other – inclusiveness that works. To others in the world, North American leadership is potentially influential when it projects a composite of our three national experiences and perspectives. This opportunity should be front and centre in our very important election.