Ottawa’s relations with Washington are not good. “Frayed” is the operative adjective. Ties have been frayed for much of the time under Barack Obama and Stephen Harper but also under Jean Chrétien and George W. Bush.
It’s rare when bilateral discord endures that long. One of the few other times was the period from the 1960s into the early 1980s, when anti-Americanism was rife in Canada on account of fears of being economically and culturally overwhelmed by the mega power to the south.
That era passed. Canadians have outgrown such trepidations. There’s a new confidence in our own capacities, a reduced apprehensiveness of theirs. We have finally shed the dependency mentality.
The new phase of contentiousness was brought about by differences over foreign affairs, the war in Iraq, and, more recently, pipelines and procurement policies. Tensions have been exacerbated by a run of circumstances that have seen the two countries simultaneously led by governments with clashing philosophies. Mr. Bush and Mr. Chrétien moved in different ideological orbits, as have Mr. Harper and Mr. Obama.
But while the new bilateral divide is not to be underestimated (as the Keystone XL pipeline debate illustrates), it’s also no cause for alarm. Indeed, it may be a cloud with a silver lining.
So much has changed since the days of the free-trade agreement, when it was assumed that Canada was on a course of more and more integration with the United States. In fact, it’s not more and more – it’s less and less. With the rise of China and other Asian markets, U.S. omnipotence has been reduced. With the end of the Cold War, Canada is no longer as dependent on Washington’s military protection. And with its new-found energy reserves, the United States is no longer as reliant on Canadian resources.
The upshot is that although the U.S. will always have a preponderant share of our trade market, we don’t need the Americans like we did in the last century. There won’t be the same kind of decoupling there was with our first great overseer, Great Britain. But the trend is toward a gentler parting of the ways.
Canada’s driving economic imperative, as stated in a recent report by John Manley’s Council of Chief Executives, is market diversification. It’s in developing Asian markets – most notably China, which is something the Harper government has been coming to grips with after several years of neglect. Mr. Obama’s politically motivated foot-dragging on Keystone, as well as other less than accommodating moves on trade, has had the effect of hastening Ottawa’s push for alternative markets. With the Northern Gateway project, Washington’s negative signals narrowed Mr. Harper’s options. Saying no to a channel to Asia became increasingly unlikely.
Although you wouldn’t know it from what’s being said, more independence from the U.S. is what the left here always wanted. We recall campaigns for trade diversification, such as Pierre Trudeau’s “Third Option,” as well as the paranoia fomented by the Liberals over free trade in the 1988 election.
With its economic and foreign-policy creed, the Harper government might have been expected to carve out closer U.S. ties, as Brian Mulroney’s did. But dealing with Mr. Obama has compelled a different course. As well, Mr. Harper’s trajectory reflects different circumstances, the turn of the global economy, the necessity of new directions.
It’s been 51/2 years since Mr. Obama saw fit to visit to Canada for a bilateral summit. (Although he was in Ontario for the 2010 meeting of the G8 and G20.) That’s a long time for a president to shun his country’s biggest trading partner. Nor should anyone expect him to be dropping in at 24 Sussex Dr. during his remaining White House years, relations being what they are.
In the past, this would have been considerable cause for concern. But given the new realities of bilateral relations, it’s not terribly surprising.