Not a Colony

Canada-U.S. relations: On the balance beam

  • August 7, 2005 9:07 pm

Shortly after Prime Minister Paul Martin took power on Dec. 12, the Bush administration quietly made an overture that it saw as consistent with Mr. Martin’s desire to improve Canada-U.S. relations. Mr. Martin was welcome to come to Washington for a quick trip to start to repair the frayed ties from the Chrétien era — within days, if he wished.

The new government demurred. Having Mr. Martin break bread with President George W. Bush could wait. Better to have the symbolically important first meeting with the U.S. leader on neutral ground, by holding a tête-à-tête next week on the margins of a summit of Western Hemisphere leaders in Monterrey, Mexico.

Mr. Martin is taking a page out of the playbook of Jean Chrétien, who held his first bilateral meeting (with former president Bill Clinton) at a summit of Asia-Pacific leaders in Seattle, in late 1993.

Isn’t it a strange opening gambit to mimic the Canadian leader who, the Martin camp believes, was unnecessarily abrasive in his dealings with Washington? Certainly, some Washington officials think so. Others aren’t surprised. With a federal election likely in the spring, the White House has been warned that it should expect some mixed signals from Mr. Martin, even if his overall goal remains to improve bilateral ties.

Polling done for the Liberal Party points to the wisdom of Mr. Martin’s cautious approach. Asked what they think should be Ottawa’s foreign-policy priorities, Canadians put improved Canada-U.S. relations down the list, after the protection of Canadian sovereignty and the flexing of Canadian influence and values abroad. Canadians certainly are not fans of the Bush administration.

So Mr. Martin has been remarkably outspoken during the past month — by demanding in the Arar case that the United States “respect the Canadian passport” (while the White House responds that it did nothing wrong); by saying that Washington should butt out of the marijuana debate (though the White House says it is solely concerned about Canadian smuggling); and by expressing dismay that Washington has not opened up reconstruction contracts in Iraq to Canadian firms (highlighting once again that Canada opposed the war).

Mr. Martin is not, in other words, reticent to disagree with the White House. He has bent over backward to emphasize that policies he deems essential, such as increased defence spending, won’t be pursued to satisfy Washington’s view that Canada should change course, but solely because it is deemed in Canada’s own interest. That is precisely the tack he is likely to take when he announces in the next few months, as he is widely expected to do, that Canada will join the U.S. national missile-defence program: that to do otherwise would be akin to handing sole responsibility for continental defence to the United States, and would be an abnegation of Canadian sovereignty.

“He has sounded like a bit of a nationalist,” said a Canadian official. “That has surprised some people, but I’m not sure it should have.”

The issues Mr. Martin has emphasized of late, topped by the mad-cow crisis and including the ever-present softwood-lumber dispute, are likely to dominate Mr. Martin’s short meeting with Mr. Bush in Monterrey, which is scheduled to be held on Tuesday.

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It remains unclear whether Mr. Martin will be able to point to any substantial progress, though the two men may announce, once their get-acquainted meeting is out of the way, that a bilateral summit is to be held soon. (It likely would be held in Washington, though there have been low-level discussions at the U.S. State Department about a possible trip to Ottawa by Mr. Bush, who cancelled one last spring.)

The key issue faced by Mr. Martin since he took power, the discovery of a second cow with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, has highlighted how difficult cross-border issues can be. Mr. Martin emphasized yesterday that the North American beef industry is highly integrated, implying that it makes little sense for Washington to keep the border closed to Canadian livestock. Yet, as Canadian cattle producers have seen, continental economic interests are easily trumped by national regulators when advantage is to be found.

“The Americans are absolutely blaming us,” said another Canadian official. “They know it could happen to them, but they’re trying to get the notion out there that it’s solely a Canadian problem.”

There is some irony in the mad-cow issue being so prominent just as Mr. Martin takes power. The Prime Minister has generally remained vague in terms of Canada-U.S. relations, beyond saying that he wants to improve the tone and to build closer institutional ties, such as between MPs and members of Congress. His most important structural step was significant in that regard: the creation of a new ministry of public safety that will help embed security co-operation with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Mr. Martin has been silent on what many within the federal government — including Scott Brison, Mr. Martin’s parliamentary secretary for Canada-U.S. relations — view as probably the dominant bilateral issue in the next few years: the potential deepening of economic co-operation beyond NAFTA to include much closer regulatory co-ordination and even steps toward a customs union or common market.

The Policy Research Initiative, which is essentially the government’s internal think tank, is knee deep in studies on these issues, as are others. Some think that Washington and Ottawa already are years behind the ad hoc economic integration being carried out by the private sector. The risk of this, they say, is made clear in the mad-cow crisis — it is so easy to close the border and engage in beggar-thy-neighbour policies.

Canadians, polls show, know their prosperity depends on a smoothly functioning North American economy with a seamless border. But they are particularly sensitive now to anything that smacks of buckling under to U.S. interests. Mr. Martin, having made bilateral issues a focus of his government, will try to clear away some of the files that roil relations. But that will hardly be the end of the story.

Drew Fagan is The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau chief.