Canada Kicks Ass

Make it Friendship - Pure and Simple
Date: Wednesday, September 11 2002
Topic: International News

Gordon Giffin on Renewed Commitment

'You are our best friend, whether we like it or not" has been a time-honoured Canadian mantra about the United States for as long as I remember. While likely the view of a minority, the sentiment has a disproportionate impact on the relationship.

Living next to the United States is no picnic. The United States tends to be insular and arrogant, exuding a "we can do it alone" attitude. The United States is custodian of the world's largest economy and military, which benefits our neighbours, but which also contributes to the smugness quotient. Read more...

Nevertheless, like Canadians, Americans are a diverse, compassionate, intelligent people, who -- when focused -- will do the right thing. However, the current squeaky wheels of U.S. foreign policy, which is geared to challenges over the horizon not around the corner, include: the war on terrorism, peace in the Middle East, and weapons of mass destruction.

How does Canada -- a decidedly unsqueaky wheel -- get appropriately into the U.S. focus? The economic interchange is huge, but this is a geopolitical question. A constructive step could be to address the debilitating schizophrenia -- "best friends whether we like it or not" syndrome. Absent a single-minded demandeur presenting the United States with a broad bilateral agenda, only the incremental economic crises pierce the global focus. Moreover, when the "whether we like it or not" crowd inordinately affects Canadian public policy, the United States hears public complaints, not private counsel.

The bonds between our peoples, as reflected by the Prime Minister in Gander today and by thousands of Canadians a year ago, are more enduring than those between any other two nations on earth. Nevertheless, at the bilateral level we tend to rest on the laurels of our past successes, relying on policies like free trade, which are decades old. As Will Rogers used to say, "Even if you are on the right track, you will get run over if you just sit there."

The relationship has ebbed and flowed over the years, as illustrated by the chemistry between the two leaders. The Trudeau-Nixon era, when the prime minister was intent on "tweaking the eagle's beak" and the President was focused on China, Russia and Watergate, saw a strained relationship and little progress. Prime Ministers Mulroney, publicly, and Chr├ętien more privately, cultivated close ties to Presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton resulting in substantial policy compatibility and innovation, as much from affecting U.S. views through private efforts as from accepting conclusions from south of the border. The trade which fuels today's prosperity is a product of that period. These friendships also produced noteworthy U.S. attention to Canadian issues. President Clinton's powerful speech on federalism in Mt. Tremblant represented a meaningful evolution in U.S. policy and a conscious effort to help a friend.

It is not easy for a Canadian leader to follow an overt path of friendship with the United States. At any point in time they are constrained by the " ... whether we like it or not" philosophy. Because democracy causes elected officials to reflect public preferences, this political ambivalence hamstrings Canadian governments in managing the relationship and can cause them to accentuate areas of disagreement. Cuba policy is a classic example. While such policies may appease the "whether we like it or not" constituency, are Canada's interests always well served by tweaking the beak on relatively minor matters? The press fosters the dichotomy by demanding an arm's-length relationship while simultaneously maintaining a "friendship scorecard" on which continental leader meets a new president first or receives an invitation to the ranch. Brian Mulroney paid a political price for accentuating friendship and I suspect this constituency was a consideration in restraining the Canadian Prime Minister from joining the British Prime Minister in Washington in the days following September 11.

The relationship doesn't need a "new idea," rather a renewed mutual commitment. A confident Canada with a comprehensive vision can define the direction and substance of new momentum for our partnership. Why wait for the United States to indicate its preferences on continental challenges and confront the dilemma of going along with the elephant or not? When a policy serves Canada's interests should it be criticized simply because the Americans support it? Canada and the United States have been the trendsetters of bilateral co-operation. Our partnership in fighting wars and the economic expansion of NAFTA are but two examples. These and similar noteworthy joint achievements were not destinations themselves, but steps along a path to a more diverse and expansive partnership founded on common values, responding to contemporary challenges and opportunities.

In crafting that Canadian vision, which must first be based on Canada's interests before it can be viewed through the friendship prism, it is well to realize that on most matters there is no monolithic American view. Consequently, a vibrant public policy dialogue with the United States is possible on virtually all issues with no pre-determined conclusions. In the post 9/11 world, however, national security may be unique. Americans feel vulnerable on our own soil. Issues like continental missile defence and implementing compatible security policies with Canada at the waters' edge have heightened priority with the average American who wonders how terror and tyranny became primarily an American burden.

I am not suggesting that Canada shrink from opposing U.S. policy when it offends Canadian principles or is inconsistent with important Canadian priorities. Nor do I advocate dilution of the culture or sensibilities which make Canada unique and special, simply to get along with the Americans. But I do believe that a component of the maturation of the relationship is once and for all opting for friendship, pure and simple.

The Canada-U.S. relationship is on Will Rogers' "right track." However, both countries can consciously place more value on invigorating its vitality. Let us accept our differences, but spend our time working to further our common principles, values and aspirations. Friendships require nurturing, support and mutual respect. Why not set a confident agenda together for a model of collaboration which again is the envy of the world, where our nations work together as best friends, for better or worse?

Gordon Giffin is a former U.S. ambassador to Canada and a senior partner in the law firm McKenna Long & Aldridge.; Facing the Century is a project of the Dominion Institute, in partnership with the National Post and the Global Television Network and sponsored by the Donner Canadian Foundation and Navigator.

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