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Canada and the United States: Ambivalent Allies

September 24, 2008 // 9:00am11:00am
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The United States and Canada have maintained a close, peaceful, and prosperous bilateral relationship for decades. Nevertheless, the two countries have not always seen eye to eye on many political, environmental, and security issues. On Wednesday, September 24, 2008, the Canada Institute hosted a program featuring presentations from the authors of the newly-released fourth edition of Canada and the United States: Ambivalent Allies, John Thompson of Duke University and Stephen Randall of the University of Calgary. The authors discussed current and emerging economic, political, and foreign policy issues between Canada and the United States. Canada-U.S. relations experts Don Abelson of the University of Western Ontario and Scott See of the University of Maine were also on hand to offer their perspectives on the current state and future direction of the Canada-U.S. relations.

Putting the Relationship into Context

One of the most difficult challenges when analyzing Canada-U.S. relations is identifying a consistent pattern of U.S. policy toward Canada, said Randall. He noted that several analysts have characterized U.S. actions on a number of issues from trade, missile defense, and border security as a general policy of neglect and indifference toward Canada. Other analysts contend that Canada and the United States maintain a special relationship that affords Canada more attention and consideration on economic and foreign policy issues than other countries.

According to Randall, neither characterization of U.S. policy toward Canada is accurate. Since 1945, he said, the United States' overall interaction with Canada may be more aptly described as a "policy of expectations." In other words, the United States views Canada as a country with similar cultures and values, and as a close ally that is expected to give support to the United States in times of crisis. When Canada does not follow the United States' lead on policy issues, as was the case in missile defense and the Iraq invasion in 2003, officials in Washington, D.C., often express bewilderment over one of their closest ally's lack of support.

Randall also suggested that differences between U.S. and Canadian values may be reflected in both nations' policy choices. He cited Canada and the United States' varying views on human security, the International Criminal Court, and softwood lumber, as examples where both countries have displayed different positions on important issues. Randall conceded, however, that it remained unclear whether disagreement over these particular issues represents a mere difference in policy or a reflection of national values: "a distinction between the two is something we need to talk about."

Identifying New Trends in an Old Relationship

The need for change has emerged as a dominant theme in the current U.S. presidential campaign, noted Abelson, not only in the sense of the desire to change the political machinery in the United States but also how Americans relate to their country. Federal elections occurring this fall in both Canada and the United States create an opportunity for change within the bilateral relationship as well. Canadians, said Abelson, would prefer a more cultured U.S. president that shares Canada's preference toward multilateralism, someone willing to build bridges with other countries, and a president more open to suggestions from allies on how to promote greater world security. In other words, Abelson suggested, Canadians would like to see an American leader "who is a mirror image of themselves."

Regardless of who wins the November U.S. election, Canadians must recognize that the nature of the asymmetrical relationship between Canada and the United States limits Canada's ability to shape relations with its larger, more powerful neighbor, said Thompson. He noted that although Canada may prefer a Democrat in the White House, controversial bilateral issues, such as the implementation of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, will not suddenly disappear. Abelson echoed Thompson's remarks, stating that issues related to Arctic sovereignty, increased border security, and trade issues will likely remain sources of tension between the United States and Canada regardless of the election outcome in both countries. Abelson also stressed that Canada could improve its relationship with the United States if Canadians realized that they still have much to learn about their neighbor. Conversely, the United States could improve its relationship with Canada if it conceded that "even great powers can benefit from the advice of those less powerful."

Looking toward the Future

In his remarks, See noted that an ongoing challenge for Canadian leaders has been finding a delicate balance between supporting U.S. actions and initiatives while not appearing too cozy with its southern neighbor. Canadians, maintained See, remain fearful of being completely absorbed into the American sphere of influence, a situation that forces Canadian leaders to ensure they do not align themselves too closely politically with their U.S. counterparts.

See also suggested that water borderlands will emerge as an increasingly important issue in the bilateral relationship in the 21st century. In the Arctic, Canada and the United States could see increased tension over control of oil and gas reserves believed to lie under Arctic waters. Other potential water disputes to watch, noted See, include an ongoing dispute between Maine and New Brunswick over navigational rights through Passamaquoddy Bay, and bulk water transfers from Canada to the United States. On the subject of bulk water transfers, See stressed that although the world's attention remains fixated on fossil fuels, freshwater issues between Canada and the United States are likely to be one of the major issues in the bilateral relationship in the near future.

Drafted by Ken Crist, Program Associate, Canada Institute
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