One of the more unusual features of the Canadian political landscape, seldom explicitly noted, is that nationalist sentiment is far more pronounced on the left than it is on the right. This is actually something that Quebec nationalism and English-Canadian nationalism share. In the United States, by contrast, nationalism is very much associated with the right wing of the political spectrum

This is incredibly obvious, once it has been pointed out, but I actually hadn’t noticed it until my colleague Andrew Potter drew my attention to it. Perhaps for the same reason, much of the discussion of North American integration is marked by a failure to observe the reversed polarity of nationalism in Canada. This leads many commentators to forget that when it comes to concrete matters of public policy, nationalist sentiment in this country usually pulls in the opposite direction than it does in the United States. The recent dust-up over ballistic missile defence (BMD) provides a useful illustration.

The story of how nationalism in Canada came to be predominantly left-wing is a complicated one, having much to do with the status of EnglishCanadians as a cultural minority within North America (paralleling, of course, the status of francophone Quebecers as a cultural and linguistic minority within Canada). Pierre Trudeau and Margaret Atwood are probably the two most important figures in this story.

On the right, by contrast, one can see the development of a marked inferiority complex in the past 20 years with respect to the United States. It would be difficult, for instance, to find a national newspaper anywhere in the world that is more relentlessly hostile to its own country of publication than the National Post. Even Stephen Harper appears to have become seduced by this ethos, when he described Canada as a ”œsecond-tier socialist country,” or when he got together with Stockwell Day to write a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal, apologizing for certain Canadian foreign policy decisions.

By way of contrast, imagine the Republican Party contemplating the election of a leader who had described the United States as a ”œsecondrate” country, or with a fondness for airing the nation’s dirty laundry by writing letters to the editor of Le Monde. Needless to say, it wouldn’t happen.

What are the consequences of this rather odd alignment of animal spirits in Canada? Nationalism carries with it a number of characteristic features, the most important being simply the tendency to assign the interests of one’s fellow citizens higher priority than those of foreigners (so-called ”œnational partiality”). This in turn generates a tendency, when push comes to shove, toward unilateralism in foreign affairs, along with a greater willingness to adopt ”œbeggar-thy-neighbour” policies.

Thus whenever greater integration (or even cooperation) is required between states, getting nationalist groups on-side, or at least defusing their potential opposition, is one of the most important challenges. This is much easier to do when these groups can themselves see the value of the project that creates the need for greater integration. As a result, it is much easier to achieve cooperation between nations in which nationalist sentiment has the same left-right polarity.

The central barrier to increased political integration between Canada and the United States is that there is almost no policy overlap between nationalist groups in the two countries, and thus fewer projects that can motivate these groups to set aside national partiality in order to participate in a joint undertaking.

In particular, nationalists in Canada are, for the most part, anti-military (or if not anti-military, at least anti-militarism). This made BMD a hard sell from the beginning. All of the arguments that have been advanced in its favor are essentially escalation arguments " the sort of collectively self-defeating reasoning that has motivated arms races since the dawn of time. Thus opposition from the nationalist left in Canada was a given. The question was merely how influential it would become.

In this respect, the ”œstory” on BMD has almost nothing to do with how it played out in domestic Canadian politics, since nothing new or unpredictable happened there. The only real story was the failure of diplomacy on the part of the Bush administration. Canada’s refusal to participate in BMD might serve as a textbook case, for future American presidents, of why one should not go to foreign countries, embarrass their leaders in public, act obtusely in private, then expect them to do your bidding.

Knowing that Prime Minister Paul Martin was essentially supportive of BMD, it was Bush’s job to make it easier for the government to endorse the project. Far from doing so, he made it impossible for the Canadian government to portray participation in BMD as anything other than capitulation in the face of American bullying. Perhaps it had not occurred to them that, in Canada, inflaming nationalist sentiment shifts power to the left.