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Brian Bow
Brian Bow

Brian Bow

We can't return to our special relationship with the United States Add to ...

A few weeks ago, we were treated to a bit of classic Canadian political theatre. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went out of her way to highlight differences between Canadian and American government positions on the Arctic, Afghanistan and abortion. The comments themselves were not particularly novel or provocative, but they gave Canadians another opportunity to clash over whether the two countries share a "special relationship," and what that means for our foreign-policy priorities.

Canadians have always expected a certain special consideration from the United States. No one was ever naive enough to think that Washington would put Canadian interests ahead of American ones, but there was an expectation that Canada would always get a fair hearing, and that the United States would exercise restraint in dealings with Canada. Yet we are growing accustomed to U.S. officials criticizing Canadian decisions, and - more often - undertaking new policies without taking Canadian interests into consideration. We hope our government can revive the old special relationship, but we worry they might get too cozy, and we still reward them for the occasional show of defiance.

There are good reasons to be nostalgic about the way the bilateral relationship worked in the early Cold War years. There were frictions, but the two governments consistently thought in terms of common interests and followed tacit "rules of the game," which usually worked to Canada's advantage. Both still have an interest in sustaining the symbolism of the special relationship. But things have changed, and we can't go back to the way things were.

The turning point wasn't the free-trade agreement, the end of the Cold War or 9/11. These events shook up the bilateral relationship, but the pivotal moment was really the early 1970s, when the Vietnam War and Watergate smashed the "imperial presidency" and fragmented control over U.S. foreign policy. America's ability to recognize and adhere to postwar diplomatic culture was irretrievably lost, and the relationship became more confrontational, complicated and unpredictable. Thus it has become harder for Canadian governments to build up goodwill and convert it into concrete diplomatic concessions. Yet some new opportunities have also been created for negotiators to "play" the more fragmented American system, and thereby influence foreign and domestic policies. The recent wrangling over the Buy American legislation highlighted both the limits on what the executive branch can deliver for Canada, and the value of plugging into the U.S. system at multiple points.

It is still important for Canadian leaders to cultivate strong personal relationships with American counterparts. To do this, we have to demonstrate that we can help them solve their problems, or at least make a credible argument that our problems are also theirs. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made an effort to build bridges with Barack Obama's administration. But like his recent predecessors, he has tended to harp on the things that Canada wants, with little to say about the global challenges American presidents are most concerned with. (This is partly Mr. Harper's problem, but it is also partly about the long-term decline of Canadian foreign policy and the perils of minority government.) We need to get past worrying about how the United States will react to our switch from a combat to a non-combat role in Afghanistan, and start thinking about what we will do afterward to show that Canada remains a global player.

We cannot, however, lose sight of this strategy's limitations; it has to be embedded in a more "balanced" approach that takes into account the enduring fragmentation of power in Washington. The White House can only do so much to "manage" the bilateral relationship, even at the best of times, and these are very challenging times for Mr. Obama's administration. While seeking stronger ties at the top, Canada must continue to invest in the kinds of diplomatic coping strategies that it struggled to develop in the 1980s and 1990s: building networks and transnational alliances, lobbying Congress, engaging in public diplomacy, grappling with the U.S. legal system, trying to contain American power through formal institutions. That's a lot to ask of a shaky, shortsighted minority government, but there really is no alternative, and the stakes couldn't be higher.

Brian Bow is an associate professor of political science at Dalhousie University, and is currently a Fulbright Visiting Research Chair at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

He is the author of The Politics of Linkage: Power, Interdependence and Ideas in Canada-U.S. Relations , last night's winner of the Donner Prize for best book on Canadian public policy.

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