‘Indispensable Ally’? Better to be a ‘Reliable Partner’ published in The Mark

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July 12, 2010

If Canada wants effective foreign policy, we need a new approach and a strategic relationship with the United States.

“The ultimate narrative of the new multipolar era will not be written for decades. Will the U.S. decline in the way of the British Empire? Will China’s rise burn out in the way of Japan? Will they stand above the rest in a functional dual-superpower system? We simply don’t know, which is why Canada needs to hedge its bet on the U.S. and make new friends elsewhere, while deepening our relationship with our best friend.” – from “United States: The Burning Platform,” Open Canada: A Global Positioning Strategy for a Networked Age

Writing a foreign policy review in a foreign ministry is like a visit from Harry Potter’s dementors: the energy is sucked out of the system. It inevitably becomes an exercise in corporate justification and an effort to rationalize the current state of affairs, rather than innovate.

Written by a committee and subject to a thousand compromises, the tone is aspirational and the language is couched in the conditional and the subjunctive. Smart officers soon learn that any really good idea drowns in a sea of banality, political correctness, and faddism. The gestation period is twice as long as anticipated. “Experts” are called in for a re-write. No one is happy with the final product. In content and context, it too often resembles an orphan turd floating at the top of the toilet bowl. Quickly flushed into oblivion by the regretful commissioning minister or his successor, the review finds an after-life in the dissecting chambers of academe. They ascribe too much value to it, clamour for more, and thus begins a new cycle that leads to … another foreign policy review.

The Open Canada report released by the Canadian International Council is none of these things, and should enjoy a much different fate. Indeed, it obviates the need for a foreign policy review because the foreign ministry, and the 23 other ministries that have a hand in international policy development and delivery, can react to these fresh and provocative ideas.

Principal author Edward Greenspon is a stylist whose prose is easy to digest. The group of Generation Xers that co-signed the document are not the usual suspects, rather a shrewd selection of those just coming into their own. In a clever, pragmatic solution to the challenge of consensus, the bar for signature was sensible – co-signers only had to concur with 80% of the final report. The Great and the Good – including the practicing doyen of Canada-U.S. relations, Allan Gotlieb – were consulted and appropriately referenced in the report’s acknowledgements. Prime ministers, of course, would do well to remember Gotlieb’s advice on foreign policy reviews: “Don’t study foreign policy. Conduct it. And justify it when you stand in Parliament and when your party goes to the polls.”

This document provides a lot to chew on. The game-changers that formed this piece sound the alarm starting with the potential impact of the United States decline on Canada. Their prescriptions are forthright. Open Canada reminds Canadians that moralism is not a policy and that a country that speaks loudly and carries a little stick has no weight. As such, we need to plan and make it a Team Canada effort because “the line between domestic and international has blurred to the point of being almost meaningless.” Further, once a plan is made, Canada must stick to it, since we are seen by many, particularly Latin America and Africa, as fair-weather friends.

The recommendations regarding Canada’s relations to the United States are sensible; while Open Canada favours a “‘big bang”’ approach that would create a customs union with the United States, it recognizes that that road will require a series of “little bangs” to build confidence. It draws from a lot of prevailing wisdom and past practice. For example, Open Canada underlines the value of building consensus at the grass roots, which was the premise behind the Canada-United States Smart Border Accord. It suggests a joint approach to border infrastructure and sharing common space at gateways, drawing on the work of the Chamber of Commerce and a very good study by former Ambassador Michael Kergin and my former Embassy colleague, Birgit Matthiesen, who is now with the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters Association.

Promoting labour mobility will be easier when the guilds – doctors and lawyers and other professions – adopt joint recognition of standards. Standards today are like the tariffs of yesterday – an impediment to the flow of goods and services. The Government of Canada should unilaterally declare mutual recognition of new standards, especially as they relate to health and safety.

While I like the sound of “indispensable ally,” it has about it the whiff of Arthur Meighen’s too-sure “ready, aye ready” – an earlier misadventure, led by the British, in the Near East that Canada did well to avoid. Every generation or so, America goes into crusader mode, as John Quincy Adams warned long ago, “in search of monsters to destroy.” Vietnam and Iraq are salutary reminders that the Canadian penchant for sober second thought is a useful habit. “Reliable partner” would be a more appropriate moniker for Canada in dealings with the U.S., since Americans put a higher priority on national security while our principal interest is in market access and a border that gives easy access to people and encourages the flow of goods.

Life with Uncle Sam can be frustrating. Too often we play our hand too defensively. Complaints and whining usually guarantee a series of increasingly irrelevant diplomatic notes that wind up in the dead letter box at Foggy Bottom.

There are really only three things to know when dealing with the Americans:

First, situate your ask into their agenda. America’s Founding Fathers created a system of brokerage politics with checks and balances designed to frustrate radical change. For that reason, Canada should frame its issues as part of an American debate. When it becomes “Canada versus the U.S.”, the only place we can be reasonably certain of victory is on the hockey rink. Our success rate rises if it is championed by American allies. Never forget that, on almost any issue, there are always more Americans who think like Canadians, than there are Canadians; yet another reflection of our asymmetry.

Second, think big. Americans like big ideas, especially those that have a national security dimension. This helped us achieve both the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.

Third, be very well prepared. When America eventually puts its mind to a problem, they play hardball. As former Ambassador Frank McKenna observed in Washington, “Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.”