Neighbourhood Watch

Bracing insights into Canada’s always uneasy relationship with our closest friend

These two very different books—Patrick James’s Canada and Conflict and Geoffrey Hale’s So Near Yet So Far: The Public and Hidden Worlds of Canada-U.S. Relations—make a useful contribution to the literature, situating themselves at opposite ends of the scale of ambition and of price. Each provides an excellent opportunity to reflect on Canada-U.S. relations, a topic most of us believe we know a lot about and understand reasonably well. Mostly we do not, of course, know nearly enough about one of the world’s largest, most complex and intertwined economic relationships, as the authors subtly make clear. It is a relationship that plays out at several levels of government, through our respective private sectors and, to a degree, also involves civil society on both sides of the border at times (think indigenous rights, energy policy and climate change, sometimes all three). Both authors also deal bracingly with the geostrategic cousin of economic links: the widely encompassing defence relationship between the two countries, defined continentally but also intermediated by our memberships in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United Nations (among other multilateral clubs).

Patrick James, a Canadian-born scholar whose career has spanned academic institutions in both countries and who today serves as a professor of international relations and director of the Center for International Studies at the University of Southern California, contributes this short but thoughtful book on Canada-U.S. relations since the events of September 11, 2001, to the Oxford University Press “Issues in Canada” series. It is attractively produced, features a useful index and solid bibliography, and is available at modest cost. This expanding series of primers on topics such as racism, child poverty, problem gambling, energy and climate change, all focused specifically on Canada, translates a desire by publishing houses to court readers rather than authors.

James’s prose style is unembellished, but he conveys facts and views clearly. He covers a great deal of ground in the volume’s seven chapters, culminating in a discussion of Canada as an aspirational “model citizen” on the world stage. His volume includes a number of minor glitches. (For example, Trudeau did not “compare Canada to a mouse sitting next to a US elephant.” More piquantly, Trudeau described Canada’s predicament as: “in some ways like sleeping with an elephant,” adding: “No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”) Never mind.

The short-format constraint that exacts the heaviest cost lies elsewhere: the author is never able to situate his topic in a wider perspective. There is no introductory chapter on what preceded 2001 in terms of Canada’s defence policy—quite a lot, as he summarizes, perforce over-briefly, at the outset of Chapter 5. We are plunged right away in medias res, a jarring experience for one who grew up with many earlier iterations of Canadian defence policy prior to the 1990s. The author kicks off with three chapters on Canada and Afghanistan, with no full justification of why this particular episode, linked to the events of 9/11, redefines in an entirely new and lasting way Canada’s defence policy and relations. Just as Iraq and Afghanistan proved an exceptionally expensive and unproductive detour for the United States into regime change and nation building in regions of which it knows little, so might Canada’s adventure in Afghanistan prove little more than a politically convenient, tactically misconceived campaign that represented the path of least political resistance for the Chrétien and ensuing Canadian governments. Far from providing evidence that Canadians lust for war, or at least a more robust defence stance, Afghanistan—once sufficient Canadian casualties had been absorbed in the Kandahar theatre of engagement that our country was insufficiently staffed and equipped to master—suggests that Canadians can assess the costs of failure less sentimentally than some others. For those doubting Stephen Harper’s political skills as a minority government leader, no more compelling example exists than how he managed to extract Canada from Afghanistan first among major NATO participants, with wide support in Parliament, adopting recommendations of an eminent persons’ panel he had convened that was led by a widely admired Liberal political figure, John Manley.

The book contains an interesting chapter on Canada-U.S. relations in the sphere of defence, including an insightful appraisal of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and of the costs and (mainly) benefits of such an unequal partnership. James notes that Canada has often disagreed with the United States on geostrategic priorities, notably on Iraq in 2003 and ballistic missile defence under Paul Martin. To these episodes he adds “twisting the eagle’s beak” on the issue of the Arctic under Canada’s current government. Indeed, he is very interesting on the Arctic, where Canada will never have the firepower to impose its will on the U.S., but where, nevertheless, an accommodation may well be reached at some stage relative to the two countries’ conflicting maritime boundary claims—as they have been in the past over issues that were even more politically fraught. James does not fault Canada for defending its interests and perspectives, but, like many others, is critical of Canada’s style at times in advancing them in Washington and of the tendency of Canadians to project onto the U.S. capital fantasies of Canada that political and bureaucratic actors there simply do not entertain. Our achievements, assets and problems are rarely a first order preoccupation there.

James argues in his very summary conclusions that Canada in the years since 2001, which have transformed it “and almost certainly for the better,” is “more balanced in its engagement with the world.” I am not sure I agree, as Canada’s overall stance today is one of single-mindedly pursuing its (primarily economic) objectives and projecting its values globally without demonstrating much interest in those of others. Results are bound to be mixed.

His chapter on an evolving Canadian identity may also suggest premature conclusions. While a project to shift our sense of national identity is clearly under way, the polling I have perused does not suggest a significant shift in public sentiment. The political success of the Conservative Party may result principally from a strong leader, sharp tactical skills and a fragmented, unconvincing opposition, the vaunted achievements of the Canadian economy in recent years having been somewhat dented by 2012’s economic figures.

Canada and Conflict sketches an argument that Canada’s defence policy is significantly improved. But for what challenges? In what parts of the world? Canada’s meaningful contribution to NATO’s role in protecting Libyans from the exactions of Gadhafi has not translated into much of a post-conflict role for Canada, nor to a leading part in the drama of Syria’s civil war. Neither need trouble us, but it would be delusional to think that our capacity to make a significant difference in the world through military means is today greatly enhanced. Nor is this—pace James—necessarily a top priority of many Canadians.

The risk for any writer in tackling contemporary issues and policy, as I often do, is inevitably that of myopia. So, while in some of his judgements James may prove right, time almost inevitably will reveal him wrong on others. But he provides an engaging read, in a volume that should be of real interest not only to generalists but also to university instructors looking for high-quality material for students on Canada-U.S. relations, Canada’s defence policy, Canada’s international positioning and also some international dimensions of the country’s Arctic policy. The book’s studied effort to avoid disciplinary jargon and complex theoretical arguments will be its best friend in finding users, even in the academic sphere.

Geoffrey Hale’s volume suffers from none of the constraints imposed on James. He may also have had the luxury of more time to explore his vast topic. The result is outstanding. His research is comprehensive and his understanding of both countries impressive, his drafting crystalline and at times engagingly witty. The volume’s broad appeal perhaps results from a professional background unusual in the Canadian academic world: while in recent years a professor of political science at the University of Lethbridge, Hale, initially a tax policy expert, for many years worked within such organizations as the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the Canadian Organization of Small Business and the Small Business Branch of Ontario’s Ministry of Industry, Trade and Technology, thus indulging his taste for public policy. His analysis is rooted primarily in the political economy of the Canada-U.S. relationship, but he is very much at home in its many other dimensions.

Among the valuable services Hale’s volume renders is a deconstruction of the multi-layered game that Canada U.S.-relations constitute once the federal nature of each country is factored in, both in regional terms within each country but also given the cross-border ties between many Canadian provinces and U.S. states. He addresses with great sophistication, and amusingly, the political–strategic, trade-commercial and the psychological-cultural dimensions of a relationship that has always risked inspiring fear and loathing in Canada and indifference and neglect in the United States.

He is excellent on the challenges Canada faces in engaging key U.S. actors, including the administration of the day and Congress, and the instruments Canada has developed to promote its interests in the United States including lobbying (Washington’s ultimate contact sport) and the use of networks of influence. He also engages with sectoral challenges for Canada (energy writ large, commodities) and the vexed issue of public and cross-border security, which has seriously inhibited the achievement of the full range of free trade benefits the two countries had anticipated until the events of 9/11. The impression that he leaves is of a United States muddling through on the Canada front as it copes with a vast array of global and domestic challenges, while Canada needs to (and does) fight hard for its corner.

Each book posits anti-American sentiment in Canada as a prime factor Canadian governments contend with in calibrating their policies and tactics toward Washington. This has certainly been true for most of my life. I may well be wrong, but in recent years I have sensed this is less the case. With the self-inflicted disaster of Iraq leaving no winners, internationally or domestically (in the United States), the disappointments of Afghanistan, the ideologically tinged economic meltdown in the U.S. in 2008 followed by ever more bitter partisanship leading to acute political dysfunction, Canadians today strike me as more worried about our neighbour to the south than reflexively inclined to slag it.

Students of Canada’s international relations might have imagined a Conservative government cozying up to Washington, but this has not been the case. While the two countries always have a strong interest in cooperating with each other, their partisan politics are rarely synchronized (the Reagan/Bush and Mulroney years being a recent exception). When Harper came to power in 2006, George W. Bush’s administration was already discredited in the United States, no longer able to deliver anything much to its international partners. And while the Obama and Harper teams are hardly a match made in heaven philosophically (the affinity of Conservative party staffers for Republican think tanks has been noted in Washington), the U.S. election year of 2012 hardly brought out the best in either: the administration’s über-political decision to block the Keystone pipeline from Alberta southward, however temporarily, on environmental grounds, elicited analyses by commentators close to the Ottawa government blaming the Obama administration exclusively for problems between the two capitals. With Obama’s decisive win, this dynamic is now likely to be retired. There remains a great deal to be cooperated on.

Both books eschew international relations theory, except for some pro-forma discussion by James, late in his volume, of the tug between realism and liberalism (with a lower case L) in Canadian policy. James, no slouch in the world of international relations theory, has here obliged Oxford University Press by offering up accessible ideas and prose, although Hale has more scope for deft stylistic sallies. Each volume would be very useful to practitioners (for example, the next U.S. envoy to Canada) and Hale’s is a “must read” for any new provincial premier in Canada (and relevant political and bureaucratic colleagues). Each will provide useful substantive foundations for theorizing by the authors and by others.

Taken together, they represent a striking—and welcome—break with the drift of the academic sub-discipline of international relations toward theological debates over matters theoretical and, even more so, into quantitative methods, the latter suggesting that if economists suffer from “physics envy,” those professing political science even more fancifully wish to “demonstrate” mathematically their propositions rather than merely defining, situating and discussing them. (When results turn out poorly, faulty data is always blamed. There is rather a lot of it!) Indeed, political science (particularly international relations) in North America appears to be engaged in a reductive methodological spiral of interest only to those involved. This is a pity. Politics debated at the intersection of history, law, political philosophy and economics, more prevalent in Europe today, has so much to offer “the educated reader.” Hale and James each demonstrate how this can be so.