Making America Smile

In Washington this week, Prime Minister Harper gave President Obama two reasons to frown.
By: /
April 3, 2012

Americans like Canada. In a recent Gallup poll rating their perceptions of other countries, Americans awarded Canada the highest score by far, 96 out of a possible 100. This is good for Canadian egos, but also for Canadian GDP. So why is our prime minister trying to change the way Canada is perceived?

This week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Washington with two goals in mind: to promote North America and to make clear that Canada’s energy strategy is focused on Asia, not the U.S. Neither of these goals inspires a positive view of Canada in the United States.

First, North America. “Canada places the highest value on the friendship and partnership among our three countries,” Harper declared yesterday. While it is in Canada’s interest to have a close relationship with the United States, it is not in Canada’s interest to pursue that relationship by promoting a “North American idea” that includes Mexico.  

Canada and Mexico occupy very different spaces in the American consciousness, and it is in Canada’s interest to keep it that way. When Americans think of Mexico, they imagine drugs and beheadings. When they think about Canada, they imagine abundant energy resources and speed bumps. While the media may have inflated Mexico’s portrayal as No Country for Old Men, it is not in Canada’s interest for these two images to mix.

And yet, most commentators seem to enjoy mixing a little Corona with their Molson. Robert Pastor, director of the Centre for North American Studies, encourages Canada to join Mexico in promoting “Buy North American” so as to “awaken the U.S. to the continent’s promise.” Earlier this week, former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson lamented, “Sadly, the idea of closer economic integration creating an uber-North America… is on life support.”

While it is true that the Mexican economy is on track to become the world’s fifth-largest economy by 2050, and undoubtedly offers many opportunities for Canada, let’s not convolute our priorities. Canada’s No. 1 focus is trade with the United States. Its trade with Mexico is peanuts in comparison. By teaming up with Mexico in its approach to the United States, Canada risks compromising the basis of its most lucrative partnership. It would be like Norway teaming up with Greece to better its relationship with Germany.

Secondly, Canada’s hard-nosed energy rhetoric. Asked about Canada’s reaction to U.S. President Barack Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, Harper explained, “Look, the very fact that a ‘no’ could even be said underscores to our country that we must diversify our energy export markets.” The prime minister went on to allege that the United States has been ripping off Canada, buying energy for less than it is really worth.

The prime minister is correct that Canada would benefit from diversifying its energy market. That the biggest emerging markets together account for less than eight percent of Canada’s overseas sales has been reiterated by economists over and over again. But compare the way Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney explained this strategy to the way the Prime Minister did. Where Harper positions Canada as saying “no” to a greedy U.S., Carney positions Canada as saying “yes” to enthusiastic emerging markets.

In any case, the likelihood is that Keystone XL will eventually be built. Instead of positioning the pipeline decision as triggering an irreversible new trajectory for Canadian energy policy, why not construct a narrative in which Canada, like the United States, seeks to take advantage of new prospects for growth? What about a narrative that imagines energy co-operation with the United States not just on consumption, but also on climate change?

It is in a state’s interest to be perceived in a certain way. Canada should seek to maintain its reputation as the United States’ best friend, separated from Uncle Sam only by its propensities for pacifism and pucks. Canada derives real power from these positive vibes. That three quarters of our exports go to the United States is largely a consequence of geography. But we should not discount the value of perception. Canada’s reputation as a reliable and likeminded partner goes a long way toward explaining the close to $2 billion worth of goods that pass the Canada-U.S. border each day. So, Harper, next time you visit Washington, make Mr. Obama smile.

Photo courtesy Reuters.