On Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET, Jeffrey Simpson will join Globe readers to participate in a live discussion about Canada's new outlook on its southern neighbour.
Canadians, it would appear, have developed quite a perceptive view of their southern neighbour.
For the longest time, they displayed a mixture of moral superiority and inferiority toward the United States. No longer – at least not to the same extent. Canadians now understand that the U.S. remains an indispensable trading partner, but it no longer offers a model for economic development. As for the U.S. political system, Canadians are horrified at what they see – with good reason.
These impressions emerged from the Globe/Nanos poll that showed quite a change in Canadian attitudes in one important respect. For decades, Canadians thought Americans were more entrepreneurial, the U.S. economy more robust, and the U.S. the better country in which to invest. By almost 2 to 1, Canadians believe their country will be a better place for wealth generation than the United States. Asked which country has the best long-term prospects for prosperity, an astonishing 86 per cent said Canada. That shows historic levels of confidence in the country’s economic future.
Remember two decades or so ago when Canadians were debating free trade with the U.S.? How many times did we hear that Canada could not compete. There would be a great sucking sound toward our neighbour. Moreover, shouted the critics, Canada would lose its pension scheme, health care, unemployment insurance and other social programs.
The fear-mongering was rubbish then, and it’s rubbish now. The Canada Pension Plan, while far from perfect, is in much better financial shape than Social Security. Medicare, although needing an overhaul, still produces better value for money than the U.S. system. Unemployment is lower than in the U.S. Our government deficits, although too high, are still much lower on a per capita basis than in the U.S. Our debt situation is also much better. And Canada Post doesn’t face bankruptcy, as does the U.S. Postal Service.
Canada has been better governed and made wiser public policy decisions – some of them unpopular in their time, such as the GST, free trade and deficit-elimination pre-Stephen Harper – than the United States. Not that everything Canada has done can be called wise, but it has at least avoided the worst of the ideological blunders that have landed the U.S. in such straitened circumstances.
Again, think back not too many years when we were always being told that things were better in America. A national newspaper burst on the scene propounding this view every day, although the then-proprietor of that newspaper has some rather harsh things to say these days about the U.S. judicial system. Today, it’s very rare to hear serious public policy analysts holding up the U.S. as an example of what Canada should do in health care, education, social policy, pensions or taxation. The U.S., despite its current travails, remains a great country (whose greatness is often far removed from its political process) and is Canada’s best friend. But the country isn’t the role model it used to be for so many Canadians.
Canadians do not blame Barack Obama for his country’s problems. In the Globe/Nanos survey, an overwhelming majority of Canadians believe he is doing the “best job possible.” Inferentially, they’re saying the U.S. political system is a mess – which, of course, it is, although he isn’t responsible.
Belatedly, the Harper government seems to understand what’s going on in the world. The U.S. is still the most powerful country, but its share of the world economy is ebbing. Free trade did its job in cementing the economic relationship, but no one could foresee that, at the very moment the agreement entered into force, the U.S. was at the apogee of its power and influence – from which it has declined and will continue to slide unless it can somehow get a grip on itself and squarely face its manifold challenges.
As a result, while continuing to value the U.S. economic connection, Canada needs to see what it can do with other fast developing parts of the world. That’s why the Prime Minister’s belated visit to Brazil, his damascene conversion over China, the attention he pays to India, and the free-trade and investment negotiations with the European Union are the right steps toward preparing Canada for a less U.S.-dominated world.