Another foreign policy issue not on the election radar

I have a piece in Embassy Magazine today lamenting the fact that US-Canada relations are likely in for some significant changes over the next few years… and we’re unlikely to do much in the way of planning.

Certainly no one on the campaign trail is going to be talking about it.

Embassy, September 24th, 2008

Why Canada-U.S. Should Be an Election Issue

By David Eaves

Canada’s relationship with the United States has always experienced ebbs and flows. The question is not how do we prevent this cycle, but how Canadian governments choose to manage it?

And manage it we have not. Not since the Trudeau era has Canada been more marginal to debates in Washington. Even the basic elements that once kept the relationship running smoothly—such as quarterly meetings between senior Canadian and American officials—no longer occur. Consequently, when issues arise that relate directly to Canada—such as on the environment, protectionism, or energy security—our voice is frequently absent.

Today, Canada engages the United States not as a strategic partner, but as yet another country with a laundry list of complaints. Be it the border or softwood lumber, our concerns may be justified, but the tone and message is problematic: we have a concern, and you are the cause.

There are understandable reasons for this state of affairs. Over the past eight years, the United States has pursued policies, from Iraq to Kyoto, that, to understate the problem, made the vast majority of Canadians uncomfortable.

But the Bush era is coming to an end. And with elections taking place on both sides of the border, the political map of North America could look dramatically different by the end of November. A McCain or, more dramatically, an Obama administration could mark the beginning of a number of important policy shifts. Issues critical to Canada, and the Canada-U.S. relationship, will likely be reviewed. More importantly, policies that will shape the future of North America will be decided, with or without our participation.

Among the most important of these issues is energy security, something both presidential candidates have stated they will prioritize. As America’s largest energy supplier, Canada will factor significantly in these plans. In addition, at some point, a North American carbon regime will likely emerge, the environmental implications of the tar sands will need to be confronted, businesses will want to further facilitate the movement of goods and people across the border and, of course, Canadian and Americans will need to co-operate to ensure success in Afghanistan, especially as the United States refocuses its energies there. This is to say nothing of the unpredictable events and issues that will inevitably spring up.

And yet, none of the prime ministerial candidates will talk about renewing our relationship with the United States. The subject is simply too unpopular, and the outcome of the U.S. election too unpredictable. So at the very moment, when a plan and vision is most required from our leaders, when the opportunity for renewal is emerging, Canadians are least likely to receive one.

Perhaps others can begin strategizing and preparing. Canadians should hope so, for such a renewal is not only necessary but possible. In a recent Policy Options piece on renewing the Canada-U.S. relationship, Robin Sears notes: “Imagine the vision, the courage and imagination that it took in the harsh winter of European famine of 1947-48 for two powerless French statesmen to sit in a Paris café and begin to plan for a united Europe!”

Today, despite our differences, Canadians and Americans face not even a fraction of the obstacles that confronted Schuman and Monnet, nor do we want to even contemplate a vision half as grand.

Such planning will, as always, require Canadian leadership. Part of this is because of the asymmetric impact of any resolution. For Canadians the magnitude of the challenges is simply fundamental, but to America they are but a few of many pre-occupations. Their chess board is simply vastly more complex. But for domestic reasons, the Canadian public will demand their government lead, not follow, the Americans.

Somewhere in Ottawa, I hope, there is the Canadian equivalent of Schuman or Monnet, who see the opportunity and are planning a strategy to manage the next generation of Canada-U.S. relations. One thing is for certain, no one on the campaign trail will be.

David Eaves is a frequent speaker, consultant and writer on public policy and negotiation.

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