Global Conflict and North American Integration

By Prof. Thomas Velk on July 10, 2008

Cooperation with the United States earns Canada economic gains and gives it a discrete national identity. Meaningful cooperation is always possible, but international conflicts that shift the U.S. balance of power toward the executive branch represent unique opportunities for Canada to extend her national interest.

While a particular circumstance may dictate otherwise, a general policy of negative neutrality instead of an active and enthusiastic joining of force with the United States during critical times is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of Canadian history. The familiar story of an inconsistency between American influence and Canadian nationalism profoundly grips our collective political imagination. But the tale is an ideological self-indulgence, not accurate enough to be paid for with the likely sacrifice of national interest consequent upon its being extended to geopolitical conflict.

When we have fought alongside the United States against a common enemy, or when we have simply been a part of a watershed moment in the evolution of our neighbor, the effect upon Canada has been an improvement in our standing in the international community. Each step in our progress from colony to dominion to autonomous nation, and finally to G7 status has been intimately combined with momentous developments in American history. These sudden shifts in our destiny do not take place automatically: they require Canadian leadership capable of grasping the opportunities so suddenly and unexpectedly on offer, so as to awaken our too peaceable and excessively orderly nation from its constitutional sleep, and hurry it along a newly opened path toward old goals, or even to shift national attention in favor of a changed national destination.

From the 18th Century to the 1930’s, European powers typically acted behind the scene, to manipulate Canadian foreign policy in ways to frustrate, confuse and sometimes defeat North American union: the result was the creation and survival of the Canadian nation, although possibly at the price of lowered Canadian income and a slightly more irregular American foreign policy. Nonetheless, we argue that the complex interplay of American crisis and the response of policy makers acting as agents for Canada has a profound importance for Canadian welfare: from our point of view, the cross-border symbiosis is the most important factor in Canadian history.

The present conflict may offer another opportunity for Canadian evolution, but if we fail to act with the urgency required we may sacrifice the purely Canadian gains earned by venturesome acceptance of necessary North American convergence: the costs may include a step backward in Canada’s march toward global influence.

A direct, unimpeded, immediate and effective decision-making axis running between Ottawa and Washington is decidedly not the norm. In times of peace the many fountains of power, legitimacy, interest, often in conflict with one another, almost always without a common purpose and almost never having a common constituency, dilute or circumvent the focussed national influence Ottawa wishes it could impose on the everyday business of trade and investment.. By blurring the boundaries of command, special-interest directed, multiple-focussed competitive and conflicting diplomatic voices, all claiming and many possessing a local legitimacy, all demanding significant influence over any proposed change in the established manner in which business is done, suspends Canada in her "normal" peacetime state: inaction. And so it is not merely the asymmetric distribution of economic power within North America that currently keeps Canada frozen as a capital absorber and commodity exporter: Canada's own multiplicity of interested and powerful decision makers could not easily agree upon a strategy to change things, even if they could agree that their local worlds needed the changes that would be subsequent to any shift in national goals.

Only in emergency situations does Ottawa gain the capacity to break out of its blissful suspension. War is one such emergency. But since September 11, Ottawa has neither consolidated its economic influence nor asserted its political power. Instead, Canada’s familiar but inconsistent understanding of the proper nature of the North American bilateral relationship has grown increasingly confusing. Neither the bureaucracy nor the cabinet has communicated a coherent interpretation of the Government’s view of the proper relationship between Canada's national interest and the international struggle against Terror. This disarray is dangerous and counterproductive.

An opportunity is being lost. Historians have not encountered a Canadian federal government that has grown less powerful in times of consolidated military effort. Furthermore, the ever-diminishing economic importance of national boundaries and the insignificance of the costs needed to surmount mere geographic distance make proper diplomatic handling of bilateral relationships imperative if Canada hopes to conserve her preferential American trading status vis a vis potential rivals. Canada, no stranger to commercial diplomatic opportunism (think of our free trade overtures to distant Chile during the time the American President did not have fast-track authority), should recognize the need for a united North American purpose in times when American attention is not distracted, but rather is raised to wartime intensity.

The “peace-maker” nation came of age on the battlefield, and many phases of Canada’s maturation as a sovereign state are linked to international conflict. The compression of executive power and unitary national action associated with war, particularly global war, enabled Canada to advance from colony to dominion to middle-power. Today's conflict, the first war of the twenty-first century, presents new opportunities for the evolution of Canadian power. Specifically, the War on Terrorism and its attendant diplomacy provides the necessary political cover for Ottawa to circumvent provincial entanglements (in all senses of the term) and maximize the national self-interest through increased cooperation with the United States, in particular, but diminishing the impact of the commodity price bubble.

At the time, the NAFTA debate consumed Washington and Ottawa and the media was full of dire predictions. In the end, its success has been a model for other attempts to diminish protectionism. Easier access and even price concessions for costly commodities offered by Canada during the current period of instability will pay long term dividends. George W. Bush may suffer from low poll numbers right now, but as an end of term president, he has options unavailable to a President concerned with re-election. He has become the archetypal “energetic executive” who is described by Alexander Hamilton as the unitary actor the US Constitution wisely provides in times of national conflict. Canada will not encounter an American executive more ready to undertake innovative action for years to come.

The geopolitical and economic ambitions of America’s enemies can be cut short by North American energy policies that diminish US reliance on OPEC oil. An energy self-sufficient North America (or more realistically, the ‘hemispherization’ of US petroleum imports) may be an effective long-term strategy to counter the strategies of Mr. Bin Laden. Diminishing the role played by American oil requirements in the equations describing the Middle East's problems may advance the peace process there.

Canada will always have reason to welcome the gratitude of America. We have a chance to earn that gratitude now. Let’s not allow the opportunity to pass.


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