One date isn't a relationship
Many will focus on the meeting between Jean and
Dubya today, says JOHN IBBITSON. But success won't
keep Canada from losing relevance internationally
By JOHN IBBITSON
March 14, 2002
Today and tonight, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien will meet for talks and dinner with U.S. President George W. Bush. Contrary to what you may have heard, the evening will go just fine.
Conventional wisdom (reporters talking to reporters) holds that the Canada-U.S. relationship has cooled considerably since Mr. Bush arrived in the White House, and is in danger of chilling even further. Even before Sept. 11, the reasoning goes, Mr. Chrétien was clearly not the primary object of the President's affections. That position had been captured by Mexican President Vicente Fox. In Mexico, the President declared, America had no closer friend.
After Sept. 11, Mr. Bush forgot to thank Canada for taking in thousands of Americans whose planes had been diverted here. There were fears that the United States would tighten the border unless we surrendered a large chunk of our remaining sovereignty by agreeing to a continental domestic-defence system. Then, to add humiliation to insult, British Prime Minister Tony Blair quickly emerged as Mr. Bush's closest confidant in the emerging coalition against terror. America had no closer friend . . .
Finally, the whispers swirled, the President and the Prime Minister simply didn't get on that well. The PM, who quite enjoyed spending time with Bill Clinton, found the new President to be a bit of a cowboy. (Shades of Lester Pearson and Lyndon Johnson.) The Prez considered the PM to be old, out of touch, not part of the hip new set of world leaders -- not a Blair of Britain, a Schroeder of Germany, a Putin of Russia, a, well, a Bush of America.
The result was thought to be an increasingly difficult and at times testy relationship between the world's closest allies, for which Canada would pay a price in everything from lumber tariffs to international prestige.
The truth, however, is considerably subtler. Not necessarily more encouraging, just subtler.
The Canada-U.S. relationship consists of far more than how the Prime Minister and the President get along. It isn't even primarily about them. It is a tightly woven skein of contacts among bureaucrats and cabinet members, from how Secretary of State Colin Powell is getting along with deputy Prime Minister John Manley, to how easily Smithers in Ottawa can reach Bludgers, his counterpart in Washington.
At this level, things carry on as they always have. The U.S. government, in its day-to-day dealings, still does not consider Canada a foreign government. You don't even need a country code to phone, for heaven's sake. The bilateral relationship, in its thousands of routine dealings -- the true meat of a relationship -- carry on undisturbed.
The relationship between the Bush administration and the Chrétien government is also perfectly healthy. Example: When Deputy Prime Minister John Manley was in Washington last week, he and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge went to a local restaurant for dinner, which went on for three and a half hours. Example: Attorney-General John Ashcroft, an amateur woodcarver, dropped off a homemade coat rack at the Canadian embassy last Christmas as a present for Solicitor-General Lawrence MacAulay. The two have apparently taken to each other.
These cordial ties at the cabinet level have paid dividends. Think about it: What was Ottawa's primary goal in the weeks that followed Sept. 11? First and foremost, to reflect the grief Canadians felt for the terrible losses their close friends had suffered. This we accomplished in a hundred different ways, not least the Prime Minister's moving speech at the memorial service on the Friday after the attacks: "Do not despair. You are not alone. We are with you. The whole world is with you."
Second, to support the United States as it fashioned its response to the attacks, while preserving the right to exercise an independent foreign policy. This, too, has been achieved. Canadian forces are fighting alongside our U.S. counterparts in Afghanistan, to the best of our highly limited ability. But Mr. Chrétien and Foreign Minister Bill Graham have made clear that Canada will not be involved in any adventures in Iraq -- or the Philippines, or Georgia, or Yemen, for that matter -- unless the Americans do a much better job of justifying these interventions.
Third, to preserve the flow of commerce between the two nations, on which the livelihood of every Canadian depends, without surrendering what is left of our economic sovereignty. This too has been accomplished. Cross-border commercial flows are back to where they were Sept. 10, while Ottawa's move to tighten internal security was in line with what Canadians would have demanded, even without American pressure.
Is the notion that something is wrong in the Canada-U.S. relationship entirely fallacious, then? No, not at all. But it has nothing to do with whether Jean Chrétien laughs at George Bush's bad jokes.
For as long now as just about anyone can remember -- well, at least since around 1955 -- Canada's position as an important middle power has been eroding. Partly, this has to do with a changing geopolitical world. Other nations have risen from the rubble of war to assume the place we had temporarily occupied. More important, it is the result of Canada's unilateral decision to disarm. That policy, which began under Pierre Trudeau, has continued under Jean Chrétien to the point where Canada simply is unable to project force against anyone, anywhere.
Coupled with this, the Canadian foreign service has pursued a determined policy of keeping as much distance as possible from the United States, short of actually estranging them. This has left Canada in the weakest of positions: determined to retain an independent, multilateralist foreign stance, without any credible ability to exercise economic or military influence. In other words, every year we matter less, to Americans and to everyone else.
Canadians, accurately sensing their diminishing place on the world stage, look for scapegoats. When someone tells them that it's because George Bush and Jean Chrétien don't get along, that is more comforting than hearing the truth: that Sept. 11 brought into sharp relief the relative power and influence of every nation of the world in its relations with the one nation of surpassing power and influence.
In that moment of exposure, Canada was revealed to be less influential than it had been 10 years ago, when prime minister Brian Mulroney helped broker the coalition that waged the Gulf war against Iraq; or than it was a generation ago, when Canadian troops and ships fought beside their American counterparts in Korea. Britain, on the other hand, is ascendant, as its economic and military renaissance of the past 20 years begins to pay dividends. Mexico is ascendant, as its union within NAFTA and its emergence as an increasingly robust democracy pays dividends as well.
Whether Canada's decline as a major middle power is relative or absolute, and whether this can, or even should, be reversed, is a matter for Canadians to debate among themselves. But it's hardly fair to lay the blame on how well two men get along at dinner.
John Ibbitson is a Washington-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail.