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Why are the relations between Canada and the US deteriorating? : Quora

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Why are the relations between Canada and the US deteriorating?
Martin Levine
Martin Levine, former Foreign Service Officer (1978-2009)

For good reasons there is so much discussion about the Trump Administration destroying the USA's relationship with Canada. Certainly they have made things worse. However, I believe relations between the two countries have been weakening, probably a better word than deteriorating, for decades.

A Window of Close Relations That Is Closing

How long did Canada have really warm, close relations with the USA? Really, it was a relatively short period from the late 1940's up to the early 1960's. The 1950's was a time of economic expansion on both sides of the border, which put people in a good mood. The USA seemed to be to Canadians a successful, well-run place, and American investment in Canada was appreciated.

Also, TV arrived in Canada. The USA was putting out some very enjoyable products. I remember it and I think it produced a sense of closeness to the USA that really didn't exist.

At the time the USA was in an unprecedented new period of internationalism and international leadership, in politics, in defence and in the world economy. However, more typically the international stance of the USA has been isolationist and xenophobic. Canadians, and others, wanted to believe that the USA had turned over a new leaf. It hadn't. It was a hiatus, both for the USA as a country and for individual Americans. The concept of American uniqueness, of American exceptionalism, is very, very basic to Americans. It is part of the personal self-esteem of Americans, not just a political stance. The USA is a mass society with a very large population and a very powerful elite. The sense of being a unique person in the world, an American, is a powerful bulwark against being just a face in the crowd.

A country is a bit like a living cell. It needs a membrane to define its existence. Countries that form close associations with other countries compromise some of that membrane in favour of having a shared outer perimeter. It is sort of the acceptance of an outer shell as a substitute. This is always going to be very difficult to do but it can happen when countries feel an ethnic closeness, a strongly shared cultural heritage (Europe) or conditions where economic unions with other countries are so strongly beneficial to so much of the population that their value can not be denied.

The USA has never had these overwhelming factors. When the United States Constitution was enacted, the USA stopped being “British”. The USA became a multi-ethnic, multiracial country, searching for an all-American national identity, drawn together by constitutional principles and a massive internal market.

I believe that the past few decades have consisted of the United States reverting back to its much more traditional isolationist and xenophobic stance. Donald Trump knows how to use it but he did not create it. There is nowhere near enough popular demand in the United States to support a “special relationship” with any country.

We Were Warned

Vietnam and the racial riots did a lot to destroy positive Canadian feelings about the USA. Then there were dubious wars, more political and military lying and more quite poor-quality Presidents. I think really, by about 1970, the era of wide scale Canadian admiration of general American culture was over.

However, there was still a great of deference in Canada, and other countries, to American leadership. It still extended, to a limited extent, to Americans as individuals.

Canadians were warned by some politicians and ideologues within Canada that it could not last forever. The NDP spoke out and so did the left wing of the Liberal Party. A lot of Canadians stopped believing what the Americans were telling us. Some of them started to see their economic dominance in Canada as very damaging and their international judgement as seriously flawed. In a limited way even our own politicians and journalists started to act out. We maintained relations with Cuba. We enhanced our relations with China. We began to refuse participation in most of America's wars. We rejected their almost desperate clinging to very conservative lifestyles and behaviours.

For a long time we got to fly under America's radars. Typically the American attitude towards Canada has been benign neglect. Canada was seen as being rather insignificant and generally docile. However, slowly, slowly, some Americans began to notice that a lot of Canadians had lost confidence in American leadership, found some favoured American lifestyle behaviours rather eccentric and bizarre, and no longer had the same admiration for American culture.

The masses of Americans didn't however notice Canada at all. Donald Trump is making them notice us. He is doing it for his own purposes and possibly because of his wounded ego. He is dragging Canada into the internal American political debate. This will be nothing but bad for what is left of the “special” Canada-USA relationship. The relationship wasn't viable in the long term. It was based on the lack of interest by docile working class Americans about the rest of the world, and Canada's low profile, despite the intensity of trade between the two countries.

We Can't Go Back

I don't think Canada can go back to that old image, a harmless, frozen place that demonstrated American superiority, presented no threat, and really wasn't worth much attention.

Donald Trump is crass and vulgar but Canadians would do well to look at Bernie Sander's website. His attitude towards NAFTA is not all that much different. Were he twenty years younger and actually got to be President, he would also try to wind up that working class base. Canadians tend to empathize with him but, if you look through that lovable, caring image, you can see the isolationism leaking out.

The next American President may be more courteous. There might be nice, smiley photo-ops with whoever happens to be the Prime Minister of Canada. That President might be more cognitive about the realities of America's international trade, but there will be no more special relationship. The USA will continue drawing back after an internationalist period that a lot of Americans never wanted. As much as I hate to agree with Donald Trump about anything, the USA's trading relationship with China has been mismanaged and hurt some American industries and workers very badly. The USA has been through a series of horribly costly international military interventions that have produced limited results. They have failed massively to secure their own southern border.

The USA is in wound-licking mode. That will last for a long time. This is an internal domestic process in the USA that Canadians can not doing anything about.

My prediction is that the USA will come out of it but do by reverting to its traditional stance, “make the world go away”. As younger generations of Canadians come up, they won't remember that old, nice America.

But, We Are Not Passive Victims

Canada has had its own internal processes. It is Canada's sovereign right. But the changes are not America positive.

Canada has developed a national stance that I would call developing-world friendly and respectful. We see ourselves as being credible peacekeepers, peacemakers, intervenors and participants in a good faith inter-cultural dialogue. Much of our immigration is from countries many Americans have been socialized not to like. We are reaching out to China and India, albeit with some major blunders. To the extent they know about it, much of America will not accept this.

Successive Canadian governments, supported by most of Canada's elites and much of the general population, have spent years creating a social democratic Canada. Basically, we want to be in a position to sit down with Britain, the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden and compare social programme notes. So many Americans can not understand this sort of behaviour as being acceptable in a “free” country. They may start to see it as conspiratorial. When they notice us doing it, they will distrust us.

Canada's economy is heavily reliant on American markets but we are moving in another direction. Recently Canada's population crossed the 37,000,000 mark. It is still growing at historically rapid rates. It does not look like it will be long until we reach 40,000,000. We can see internal markets grow. We are gradually gaining more of a basis for import substitution.

Canada will not accede to some of the economic demands that the USA is making on us and has been making on us, even before the Trump era. Marketing boards are not going to go. We are not going to sell our forestry resources to private companies. They will remain Crown land and our softwood lumber will remain on a stumpage basis. Canada will continue to struggle to get its oil to Canadian ports, divert the flow away from the United States and get a better price overseas. We will not accept the legitimacy of “buy American” policies. If we advocate for freer movement of labour, the American response will be a flat, no. Even if NAFTA survives, the trade relationship with the USA will have serious sources of friction, just as the USA is giving up its leadership in international trade.

Canada will continue to subsidize some industries, in the same way that the USA does. Canadian governments will continue to search for multilateral overseas free trade agreements. The threats from the Trump administration have done what nothing else could do, force Canadian manufacturers to look for overseas trade and non-American sources of supplies. The Government of Canada will have no choice but to drop tariffs on countries that produce things that we can substitute, instead of American supplies, and we can't produce ourselves.

No More Special America

We can not afford to defer to American leadership anymore because the USA does not want to be a leader. This is consistent with their long-term historic stance and the psychological needs of many Americans. Our special relationship with the USA was based on their desire to lead.

The USA will continue to downsize and look at other countries just in terms of what they imagine to be their own interests. They might see a lot of countries negatively but they won't want to see any very positively and will not tolerate “special relationships”. And, that is their right. It is not an aberrant stance that Canada should waste time decrying.

Move On

Courtesy of Donald Trump, a large part of Canada's population has begun to accept what some of Canada's better economists have been saying for years. The USA is not a pillow underneath our economic feet. We are not going to have special relationships with anybody. (Even after Brexit, Britain won't take us back.)

Currently Canada seems to be going through a period of denial, than anger, then sadness, then resignation, kind of like a bad divorce. Once our media commentators and politicians settle down, our governments can make a national business plan, do some sales work and Canadians can learn more about how to buy good stuff from lots of different places.

Martin Levine

Tags: usa - canada relations
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