Despite the goodwill expressed in countless personal ways by Canadians responding as true neighbours to the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, relations between our countries are, in my view, at a serious cross- roads. The situation today is reminiscent, in many ways, of the fractious state of affairs in the early 1980s. At that time there were significant bilateral disputes over the National Energy Program, acid rain and, of course, softwood lumber. On the global stage, Pierre Trudeau’s ”œpeace initiative” did not sit well with the Reagan administration any better than his personal dalliances with Fidel Castro. Many in Canada, meanwhile, worried about what the US would do with its massive military power.

Twenty years later, each government seems more deter- mined to ”œdifferentiate” and ”œdisagree” than to find ways to resolve disputes or chart new avenues for cooperation. Despite all the rhetoric about new North American partner- ships, the dialogue is erratic and attitudes on both sides of the border are stiffening. The need and underlying rele- vance of each to the other is not what it once was.

Differences between us on global issues are profound ”” from Iraq to Kyoto and the World Court, among oth- ers. Canadians now worry about US unilateralism, and not just the military variety. Americans wonder about Canada’s reliability and about our relevance on the mat- ters of greatest concern to them. The search for new forms of security to combat very new threats is more open- ended than assured.

On the bilateral side, Canada’s abrupt decision to stand down on North American ballistic missile defence aggravat- ed already tender nerves in Washington about Canada’s atti- tude on security more generally. Paul Cellucci said at the time that he was ”œpuzzled” by this decision. His recent book provides a more graphic account of how he and undoubt- edly some in Washington really felt. The decision was as poorly articulated to Canadians as it was communicated to Americans. It may have served an instant political purpose having to do with security of a different sort, but it had nei- ther strategic nor security merit.

The US administration’s equally abrupt decision in August to reject the unanimous ruling by the Extraordinary Challenge Committee on softwood lumber represented, for Canadians, a serious breach of NAFTA obligations. Along with repeated delays and stalling tactics on the dispute set- tlement panel process itself, the frequent recourse by the administration to a provision that had been intended for genuinely extraordinary circumstances was already eroding the substance and spirit of what, for Canada, is a key ele- ment of NAFTA. But to repudiate the ruling of a committee that the US had insisted on creating was simply bizarre.

This rejection reinforces concern about the US penchant to go its own way and, if left to fester under pro- tracted wrangling, will damage more than trade in lumber. (After all, when the elephant runs loose in the jungle, more than trees can get trampled.)

The mood is not healthy. Instead of benign neglect from Washington, we are seeing casual indifference to sensitive treaty obligations. Instead of the perennial desire of Canadians to be seen as distinct, we are seeing frustra- tion, skepticism and a growing sense of how different we really are. Instead of mutual respect, we are seeing symp- toms of mutual wariness.

Even a relatively isolated environ- mental issue affecting our shared border ”” the Devil’s Lake diversion ”” has been difficult to resolve, raising doubts as well about the continuing efficacy of the ven- erable International Joint Commission.

In the mid-1980s, there was eventual- ly a sea change in the relationship when our respective political leaders initiated a bold plan to refurbish rela- tions. Their personal commitments (and conviction) led to the Free Trade Agreement and subsequently NAFTA and a substantive agreement on acid rain. We also worked constructively together on global issues ”” the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Gulf War, to name a couple and, when we had disagreements ”” as we did ”” we expressed them in a civil fashion, reflecting the significance (and the civility) of the broader relationship.

It would be simplistic to suggest that what we need today is a similar injection of leadership and realism to get matters back on track. Logical perhaps, but extremely difficult, because the politics in each country seem to counter the perceived need.

Canada is hobbled to a degree by a precarious domestic political situation and a looming election in which any bold new vision for North America or even talk of more constructive engage- ment with the United States offers lit- tle by way of popular reward. Despite the promise of ”œreinvigoration,” there is little inclination to engage or deliv- er. For its part, the United States has many priorities these days other than attending to affairs with its northern neighbour. Canada has become peripheral, despite its proximity.

This is not to disparage the good work being done on a daily basis by our two embassies and officials from both governments, but they are mind- ing a somewhat messy store with seemingly minimal direction or over- sight. Complacency has been replaced by acrimony, and no-one really seems to be in charge.

Some Canadians believe that cre- ating differences with the United States underlines our ”œindependence.” In fact, it does the opposite. When you cannot manage relations with your neighbour and dominant trade part- ner, with whom can you? This point applies with equal force to the United States. When the US allows relations with its neighbour and largest export market to deteriorate, with whom can it really do business?

There is scope for a bolder, broader and better partnership, and I have outlined specific ideas to this group on previous occasions but, to make real progress, our government leaders need to use precious political capital. There is a pressing need to rejuvenate exist- ing bilateral institutions: NAFTA is under heavy strain; NORAD risks becoming a shell with a severely con- strained role; even the IJC, as I have said, is faltering. There would be merit too in exploring the need for new institutions to deflect some of the political heat and bring the fundamen- tals into a more positive focus. But is there the will? Frankly, there is little to suggest that either govern- ment is prepared to make the necessary investment.

The skirmishes will prob- ably continue therefore, espe- cially on trade, until there is a clearer recognition of the need for repair and for a more constructive and more sys- tematic engagement, so keep your hard hats close at hand.

It is particularly regrettable for Canada and the United States to be at loggerheads on trade at a time when we should be working together to resuscitate the Doha round.

George Shultz, the former American secretary of state, once observed that good relations between Canada and the US were like ”œgood gardening.” You had to attend regular- ly to the weeds, and it needed more than one hand on the hoe. His view is even more valid today than it was then, because the weeds seem to be flourishing in our North American gar- den. If our governments remain obliv- ious, some may prove to be poisonous, and unless the ”œgardeners in chief” are prepared to take a more firm turn on the hoe, the short term harvest is like- ly to be skimpy. 

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