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In 1993, I was in Tokyo to address a group of businessmen on "Coping with a Changing United States in a Changing World." It was a year after George W.H. Bush, then U.S. president, had become violently ill at a state dinner with the prime minister.

The uproar had produced a low point in Japanese-U.S. relations, and the shock had yet to subside. So I repeated for my audience what I'd said at the time to a Japanese journalist, who was unsure of what to make of Americans. Just as American jazz is called the "sound of surprise," I said, the U.S. is the nation of surprise. Then I made three points:

  • First, whatever happens in any given week in no way represents the United States as a whole. Even Americans can’t see their own country whole at one time. There is simply too much energized purpose in their vast, open society – too much action being initiated. No matter the problem, or the opportunity, someone is taking it on.
  • Second, just as it’s impossible to overestimate the lack of Americans’ collective foresight, it’s impossible to overestimate the power they bring to bear when they decide they must.
  • Finally, after living beside Americans for 150 years, Canadians have learned one key lesson: Be firm and patient with them, and you can find a position somewhere between Pearl Harbor and simply handing them the keys.

This is crucial, because no country matters more to Canada – to the world, for that matter – than the United States and, right now, it's in its greatest political turmoil since the Civil War. The war was an existential crisis, and afterward the U.S. faced an identity crisis: What kind of country did it want to be? Today it again faces an identity crisis that is an existential crisis for the Republican Party.

Even so, it has two very big positives: The U.S. is the only major country on the right economic path, and under President Barack Obama, it has largely withdrawn from geopolitical, financial and economic ground it could no longer hold. It's now stronger, but at risk because of America's divisive politics.

The drive to divide

The United States has a drive for division, but at critical junctures, under the right leaders, it can also do big mutual accommodations. Canada has a drive for mutual accommodation – one that involves overcoming, not aggravating, divisions. The United States was founded by force and preserved by force. Canada was founded by the mutual accommodation of the Quebec Act of 1774, which was passed just 15 years after the Plains of Abraham and allowed the vanquished to retain their language, their religion and the French form of civil law.

The pattern has been repeated, first at Confederation and, more recently, with the notwithstanding clause in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Canada has been preserved by words and persuasion, not arms and force – a contrast that marks the abiding difference between the two countries.

The current wave of U.S. populism, nativism, racism and fearfulness can be attributed to many factors, all of them valid, but only partial.

What is happening to the United States comes from the beginning – from the driving force of its freedom and individualism. But these strengths can overwhelm mutual accommodation and collective action.

Canada's mutual-accommodation culture is rooted in a different history and geography. Ironically, Canada has become less European than the United States – less divided by nationalism, ideology, religion, class, and cultural differences.

The world is in its first global moment in history – when the momentum and direction since 1945 have weakened and the counterforces have strengthened. This will require all the important countries to better understand themselves as well as others. In his insightful book The Duel: The Eighty-Day Struggle Between Churchill and Hitler (1990), historian John Lukacs argues that, from May 10, 1940, the day Churchill became prime minister, through the Battle of Britain, the war was essentially a two-man struggle – which Mr. Lukacs says Churchill won by understanding Hitler better.

What was apt for leaders then is apt for countries today. Those that do best understand themselves and others, and use that understanding effectively by following the four great better ways mankind has found for going about things: caring and compassion, freedom under the law, science and education, and mutual accommodation.

The world is becoming more horizontal (the opposite of tribal and hierarchical) and less vertical. Freedom has made that happen, and the Internet, along with social and physical mobility, has reinforced it. Nowhere has that happened more than in the United States.

Moral crisis and fearfulness

The United States faces moral crises in many of its major institutions. Examples include a Washington barely able to govern, the hierarchical side of both the Catholic Church (in the Oscar-winning film Spotlight, sexual predators are attracted to the church because it offers them, as well as victims, lasting safety) and Wall Street (in The Big Short, another Oscar-winner, tycoons make profits any way they can, disconnected from the real economy and from those who work and invest in it).

Similarly, the current exclusion-style capitalism is also in a moral crisis, reflected initially in Occupy Wall Street and now in the fact that some 40 per cent of U.S. voters are prepared to support delusional (Donald Trump) or pie-in-the-sky (Bernie Sanders).

Historically, waves of fearfulness have come and gone in the United States: the McCarthy-era paranoia about "Reds under the beds," for instance, or the attitude to terrorists after 9/11.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt seemed to have sensed this tendency. When speaking of the Depression in his 1933 inaugural address, he famously said, "There is nothing to fear but fear itself." In most countries, leaders do not invoke the idea that the problem is the fearfulness of their own people.

The U.S. election in November may become one of the more dangerous moments of the postwar period. It is hard to imagine what the world could become if the United States were to go into some form of craziness – a world of exclusion and no compromises – opposed to what it has always been about.

The raging U.S. democracy and its exceptional ability to manage extremes is under severe stress. Though unlikely, that craziness scenario cannot be ruled out. Even the best possible result will not assure minimum effective politics. The combination of high levels of partisanship, divisiveness and disaffection will likely make a sunnier Reagan-like political outcome close to impossible.

The leadership and consensus for a better way forward after November looks unlikely, but a start may be possible. The United States faces an identity crisis about the kind of country it is and what it will stand for in the future. The Republican Party has its own existential crisis. The Republican crisis means that the current danger facing Canada and the world from U.S. politics will not disappear if Mr. Trump becomes president. Hillary Clinton has so much political baggage it will be hard for her to bring the country back together again by moderating its extreme partisanship.

The situation is different in Canada. The federal election last fall saw a young, untested leader and a party that had been in intensive care completely change the feel of Canadian politics. Yet the Conservatives still have the critical mass needed to challenge the Liberals and come back, if voters want them.

Big-time accommodation

Americans have usually preferred division, yet they have had two historic mutual-accommodation outcomes, and four great mutual-accommodation leaders at critical moments.

The United States was launched by war. It was achieved by the mutual accommodation of national and state interests: a president elected by a popular vote (expressed through state electoral-college delegates) every four years; elected individual House of Representative constituencies every two years; two senators for every state, no matter its population, and a bill of rights that can be changed only with great political difficulty. This complex political system, though frustrating at times, has worked most of the time.

Fast-forward 170 years, and the United States led the greatest statecraft achievement in history: It created a post-1945 global order based on broadening the inclusiveness in the world and containing what could not be included. It did so collectively, not unilaterally.

The first U.S. president, George Washington, won not only a war but the peace. He created a new country through mutual accommodation with a fractious group of founders. Abraham Lincoln, by collaborating with his notorious "team of rivals," could not avoid the Civil War, achieved some accommodation with the slave-holding South and preserved America's representative democracy – government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Mr. Roosevelt saved political and economic democracy by overcoming the deep divisions from the Depression and leading the allied victories in the Second World War.

I believe Mr. Obama will come to be seen as a great American president and one of its foremost mutual-accommodation leaders. The post-2008 economic improvement is finally reaching more middle-class Americans, and his approval ratings are approaching 50 per cent. Great leaders make many mistakes, including big ones; but they get the most important things right. President Obama got three: election and re-election as the first black president; keeping the world from a global depression; and bringing the United States back from economic, financial, and geopolitical overreach. Ironically, the absence of the victories Donald Trump craves has made the United States stronger on every substantive front. Mr. Obama withdrew from overreach. The Republican response was to overreach themselves.

How Canada copes

Canada has always understood that hockey showed the way for dealing with the United States. When Americans wake up each day, they find it difficult to see beyond themselves. But they are so interconnected with the rest of the world that, by the end of the day, they realize they have to break out of their U.S.-centric perspective and deal with issues beyond their borders.

Canadians understand that, in their relations with the United States, they are always short-handed. To continue the hockey analogy: They have to rag the puck until an opportunity to score emerges. It usually does – but sometimes, as in the case of the St. Lawrence Seaway years ago, only after long delay. Short-handed hockey is punishing, and Americans use punishment as they see fit.

What if the present political turmoil in the United States ends badly? How can Canada best look out for itself? Has it a role to help the world cope?

As I told the businessmen in Tokyo, the U.S. is always capable of surprise – its politics could bounce back. Even so, now is the time for Canadians and their government to start thinking about and discussing these questions.

  • Job one is to use the present U.S. economic positives to strengthen the longer-term supply side of Canada’s economy.
  • Job two is to build a strong political, economic and socioculture intelligence capacity regarding the United States and other relevant countries.
  • Job three is to build Canada’s diplomatic relationships and explore its best roles.
  • Job four is to reposition Canada’s relationship with the United States to reflect present reality: a world where the dominant power is in turmoil, with an emerging relationship with Canada that is moving away from decades of convergence to one of divergence.

The best way to face any hard challenge is to build on one's strengths, which Canada's ambitious new government must do as it focuses on something better suited to tomorrow's world.

It needs more sources initiating action – especially of the economic variety.

William A. Macdonald is a Toronto writer who, to spark discussion of the nation's future, has created, with associate William R.K. Innes, The Canadian Narrative Project at

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