Hunger Games, Part 17: The Merger

The ritual argument that Canada should merge with the U.S. relies on an even less-believable dystopian future than the Hunger Games, argues Steve Saideman.
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October 8, 2013
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It almost seems like an annual ritual for someone to write about a future where Canada and the United States are amalgamated.  This time, in an apparently panic-filled book, Dianne Francis argues that the U.S. and Canada should ponder union in the face of the twin Chinese and Russian menaces.  I say apparently because I am only familiar with the book via this Foreignpolicy.com interview with her.  I do not have the time or patience to read the entire book, as there is plenty of reality-based analysis that I need to read.  However, as this piece is getting more play, I thought I would consider some of the problems with this argument, starting with domestic politics and moving to international politics.

Francis’s work is a smidge better than the usual fear-mongering about the U.S., as she acknowledges that the Republicans would never let Canada enter the United States.  If one were to turn Canadian provinces into U.S. states, it is almost certain that the GOP would have a far harder time getting into the White House, even if it could count on Alberta’s votes to go their way. 

However, Francis seems to forget that Canada has its own politics which make any significant political change pretty close to impossible.  One hint of this: Canada has tried to skate by the constitutionally complicated possibility of Kate and William having a daughter by agreeing to go along with the British legislation.  This practice was of dubious legislative legitimacy, but a serious attempt to reform the Crown and related issues would have required getting the consent of all of the provinces.  Given the events of the 1990s, Canadian politicians are understandably averse to opening up the Pandora’s box of constitutional reform. The consensus required to change the rules to accommodate a female taking the throne pales in comparison to that which would be needed for approval to either join or be annexed by the United States.

Even if we leave the Quebec problem aside (and good luck with that), Canada has sufficient problems with its internal markets to make greater unification challenging.  Supply management, maple cartels, cultural content restrictions, and a general tolerance of collusion in the marketplace (does the car dealer community in Montreal still prevent new cars from being sold on Saturdays?), all would have to be confronted if union were to occur.  Unification would also hurt various sectors of the Canadian economy that enjoy protection, so they wouldn’t be easy to persuade either – just look at the recent effort to keep Verizon out of the Canadian cell phone market.  

Ok, so the domestic politics in Canada might make it difficult to respond to the terrifying advancement of China and Russia with unification, but let’s consider the international politics of the future:

“The Russians have thrown down the gauntlet in the Arctic.… And the Chinese have targeted our resources, along with everyone else's,” Francis told Foreign Policy by phone from Canada. They're "the wolves at the door," Francis says; she frames the situation in terms of "prey and predator" in the book. “They're gaming the system,” she told FP.

Is anyone else having flashbacks to the mid-1980s hysteria about Japan, Inc. taking over the American economy?  Just me?  There is no doubt that China has been playing a clever game of expanding its reach and trying to guarantee its access to resources.  However, plotting China’s future based on its recent trajectory is probably just a wee bit of a mistake.  First, it is quite unlikely that China can maintain the pace of growth of the past few decades.  Wages will go up, other competitors will emerge, backlashes will occur and so on.  Second, and more importantly, China’s political system is facing a lot of pressure, so the time may soon come where it must focus more on improving the conditions of the Chinese public rather than marching on the Northwest Passage.  Oh, and that is something that always bothers me about fearing the Chinese in the Arctic—how are they going to get there?  Anyone envisioning the Chinese Navy sailing through the Bering Straits needs to cut back on whatever they are drinking. 

The other problem China faces in any drive towards global hegemony is quite close—Russia.  Yes, they can work together to oppose the U.S. in the short term, but their proximity and their conflicting interests will make any partnership fragile.  If they both covet the Arctic, then their rivalry will get in the way, giving Canada and the United States more room to maneuver than Francis suggests.

The piece also gets the Americans wrong: “The United States will continue to go broke buying foreign oil and cheap goods from Asia.” Well, the U.S. may go broke refusing to pay its bills, but if the past few years have indicated anything, it’s that oil is the least of America’s problems.  To be sure, writing positively about the U.S. this week is kind of hard to do, given the dysfunction in the capital.  However, betting on American decline seems to be foolish as well, as has been proven again and again since the 1970s.  The U.S. will not return to its relative supremacy of the early 1990’s, but its Navy will still stand in the way of the Chinese, its Air Force will continue to help guarantee the security of Canadian airspace, and its economy will still be one of the most important ones in the world.  Otherwise, who will be buying Chinese stuff and employing Chinese workers?

Just as Francis underestimates the Americans, she underestimates Canada: “Canada is … peripheral to the United States, as Turkey is [to the EU]…” Really? I am sure if you check the trade statistics, Turkey does not play nearly as an important role in most European economies as Canada plays in the U.S., as one of its largest markets and one of the largest importers of American goods.  I am pretty sure that Turkey would love to be taken for granted by the Europeans to the extent that Canada is by the U.S., as opposed to being a frequent target of animus, fear and xenophobia. 

The funny thing about this piece is that it suggests that unification of the two countries wouldn’t really change all that much.  Francis argues that unification would give Americans access to Canadian oil and natural gas.  Um, who’s buying that stuff now?  If the concern is that China is buying up key parts of the Canadian economy, unification with the U.S. is hardly necessary.  Just enact some legislation that would limit China’s ability to buy Canadian companies.  It really is not that hard. 

According to FP, “It's time for that to change, [Francis] says, so she’s "starting a conversation."  Maybe so, but if you start with such a fearful view of future, then the conversation is going to turn to the next Hunger Games movie rather than potentially significant policy alternatives.  Instead, if you are a mining company fearful of foreign investment (and Francis is a director of a mining company), then you’re better off lobbying for what is realistic rather than dreaming of a distant near-apocalyptic future.  Otherwise, rather than getting serious engagement, you will simply face simplistic scorn like this post.