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Bob Rae
Bob Rae

Bob Rae

Who gains from better Canada-U.S. relations? The whole world Add to ...

Bob Rae is a lawyer with Olthuis Kleer Townshend, teaches at the University of Toronto and is the author of What’s Happened to Politics?

We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” – Lord Palmerston

Geography has made us neighbours. History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners, and necessity has made us allies. Those whom God has so joined together, let no man put asunder.” – John F. Kennedy

It is almost inevitable that in Washington this week either President Barack Obama or Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will cite the famous words that president John F. Kennedy used in his address to the House of Commons during a visit when John Diefenbaker was PM. It is less likely that Lord Palmerston’s famous observation on British diplomacy in the 19th century will make the cut.

Ironically, Mr. Kennedy’s words came at a time when the Canada-U.S. relationship was rocky. The young president is said to have referred to Mr. Diefenbaker as “that s.o.b.” (Richard Nixon is said to have described Pierre Trudeau in similar terms a decade later), but the high-sounding rhetoric still seems to reassure Canadians that ours is a friendship with the United States like no other.

The current wave of nationalistic nativism that is driving the Republican presidential campaign of Donald Trump should shake us out of our slumber. It in no way represents the views of Mr. Obama, but as an imperial power with a economy that hasn’t lifted all boats, it is important to realize that what drives statecraft is more interests than friendship.

The siren call of populist nationalism of both the ethnic and economic variety is stronger than it has been in a long time, and not just in the Trump camp. Experienced diplomats have always known that the key challenge for Canada in Washington is earning first the attention, and then the respect, of both opinion and policy makers.

Mr. Obama’s decision on the Keystone pipeline seemed green on the surface, but to see it in such a superficial way misses the point that no president in living memory has presided over such an extraordinary boom in the domestic oil and gas industry. I’ve heard him called “the best fracking president the U.S. industry has ever had.”

In choosing to punish Canada’s energy sector, the President didn’t show himself to be a friend, but rather decided to advance his own political legacy at our expense. Canada’s quiet response to this decision no doubt reflected a calculation on Mr. Trudeau’s part that he didn’t want to start his term on a sour note. But, as a country, we should understand that this was not an environmental or green decision. The President chose to sacrifice us on the altar of his political self-interest. Which happens.

This will be a week of celebration and, one can only hope, some constructive decisions. The Obama team in the Democratic Party were significant allies of Mr. Trudeau’s team in the Liberal Party, and the chemistry between the two leaders is clearly positive. But Canada’s deeper interests lie in a truly rules-based approach to trade and the environment (the Americans prefer the power approach), and a willingness to engage with a northern partner that is an ally but not an identical twin.

When Ronald Reagan visited Ottawa in the 1980s, Pierre Trudeau reminded the president that “peace, order and good government” and “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” meant two different political cultures, and two different countries. Manifest Destiny and Donald Trump notwithstanding, that’s still true.

There is no telling what will happen this year in American domestic politics, but with the refugee crisis in Europe, and Britain’s second game of referendum roulette in two years, none of us should underestimate how fragile the world’s prosperity, civility and governance are at this point. A relationship between Canada and the United States that is substantive and respectful as well as celebratory matters to more than just us. It actually matters to the world.

Canada’s role as an ally is about more than our two-way relationship. Canada’s diplomatic intelligence, the quality and courage of its military, and its reliability as a deeply committed international citizen have not only been critical aspects of our worldwide reputation. They have also meant that our voice has often been consulted and listened to. As politics all over the world gets more infected by this strange virus of loud pandering and intense partisanship, it is even more important that we regain the potential to lead by example.

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