Canadians are once again in disbelief over their treatment at the hands of Uncle Sam. They shouldn’t be. In fact, Canadians should be embarrassed at their disbelief. For generations, the Canadian narrative about Canada-US relations has mostly consisted of fuzzy rhetoric about “special relationships” rather than of thoughtful analysis of Canada’s most important international relationship. The hand-wringing in the Canadian press at every perceived slight of Canada by an American president is shocking. On September 20, 2001, before a joint session of Congress, President George W. Bush famously declared that America had no truer friend in the world than Great Britain. Ouch! Didn’t Bush know that a bunch of planes had landed in places like Gander, St. John’s and Halifax on 9/11, and that the passengers were accommodated in the homes of Canadians? In May of last year, President Barack Obama travelled to London for meetings with David Cameron in which the US-UK relationship was called “special” and “essential.” Cue more hand-wringing.

Former Canadian ambassador to the US Derek Burney and the director of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, Fen Hampson, recently published a piece in Foreign Affairs that takes the Obama administration to task for having “lost Canada.” After their play on the “who lost [insert country here]?” tropes in American foreign policy, Burney and Hampson describe a laundry list of policy areas in which Canada has been given the short end of the stick: the Buy America policy, lack of support for Canada’s bid to be a rotating member of the UN Security Council, reluctance to allow Canada into the Trans Pacific Partnership trade talks.

Exhibit A: The Keystone-XL saga. There was mad cow, and softwood lumber before it; Keystone-XL is just the latest barometer with which Canada-US relations are being assessed. It is also the latest narrative depicting Washington as thwarting the rule of law, undermining the spirit of cooperation and stomping on generations of amity and friendship between the two countries. Yet the dismay by Canadians about all of this is itself somewhat dismaying. Canadians generally, and shareholders in TransCanada Pipelines in particular, should be furious at what has transpired with the Keystone-XL project. However, only some of that fury should be directed at President Obama’s capitulation to special interests in an election year. Instead, the lion’s share of outrage should be directed within Canada’s own borders: at TransCanada, at leadership of provincial and the federal governments and at Canadians generally.

It is mystifying that a large firm like TransCanada seemed to not have anticipated the firestorm created by Keystone-XL. The recent record by Canadian firms on pipeline safety is not pretty, and TransCanada wanted its pipeline to run through the environmentally sensitive Sand Hills of Nebraska and over the Ogallala Aquifer. If that wasn’t enough to attract people’s attention, TransCanada decided to threaten ranchers with eminent domain lawsuits well before a presidential permit for the pipeline could be granted. It’s no surprise that environmentalists and ranchers — strange bedfellows to say the least — ended up on the same side of the argument. However, that TransCanada managed to put them on the same side of this issue, and appeared powerless to manage the backlash it created, represents a stunning failure to appreciate the complexities of the American political system.

Anyone paying attention to the evolution of eminent domain law in the United States in the last several years would have known that threatening ranchers over property rights in Nebraska, of all places, was akin to playing with fire. In 2005, a US Supreme Court decision (Kelo vs. New London) in favour of a group of developers sanctioned the expropriation of a private residence (Susette Kelo’s) to redevelop a blighted neighbourhood with high-rent condominiums. The decision was so unpopular all over the country that in 2006 it prompted dozens of ballot initiatives designed to prevent repeats of Kelo. By 2007, 42 states had rewritten their constitutions or drafted legislation preventing the use of eminent domain for private development.

Keystone and Kelo seem very different, but they both illustrate several lessons for Canadians about the United States.

Lesson 1: It’s not over until it’s over, and even then it’s not over. Like Kelo, the Keystone-XL fiasco has at several junctures looked like a done deal, only to be postponed, undone or reborn.

Lesson 2: Compared with Canada, the United States is a profoundly open political system. Recent debates about Super PACs, special interests and partisan gridlock do not change the fact that James Madison designed the American political system to thwart the concentration of power. It moves slowly by design; it necessitates careful, sometimes ugly, compromise; and it frustrates those trying to manipulate it to their advantage. This worries people who are, for example, concerned about America’s fiscal health, since many prescriptions call for dramatic change.

Exhibit A: The Keystone-XL saga. There was mad cow, and softwood lumber before it; Keystone-XL is just the latest barometer with which Canada-US relations are being assessed. It is also the latest narrative depicting Washington as thwarting the rule of law, undermining the spirit of cooperation and stomping on generations of amity and friendship between the two countries.

Yet, for all the talk of paralysis, the Keystone-XL case represents only the latest situation in which the openness of the American political system and its plethora of entry points permit the well organized but not necessarily well-financed to be heard. How did Senator Obama out-duel the better-capitalized and well-known Senator Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary contests? Above all it was through strategy and organization, including the unprecedented use of the Internet to solicit millions of small financial contributions. How did around 60 Tea Party Republicans come to dominate the business of the House of Representatives after the 2010 midterm elections? They raised money, organized and defeated a number of well-entrenched incumbents, mainly Republican.

Lesson 3: The United States is much more than what takes place inside the Beltway. Former US Supreme Court Chief Justice Louis Brandeis once quipped that federalism was the incubator of innovation. As the histories of both Canada and the United States have repeatedly demonstrated, federalism has been a source of both creativity and conflict. Transformative political movements regularly mushroom out of US states and Canadian provinces. Given the strength of the provinces in Canada, Canadians should have a far greater appreciation of the nuances and importance of federalism in the United States.

Lesson 4 (probably the most important lesson): The appreciation that most Canadians have of the American political system is a mile wide and an inch deep. Given the degree of integration of and interaction between the two countries, it is dismaying that more Americans don’t know who their most important trading partner or largest energy supplier is. But Canadians are not that different. They might be inundated with American television and culture, but a genuine appreciation of the American political system cannot be gained by watching The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer or re-runs of The West Wing. Consider again the Exhibit A: The Keystone-XL saga. There was mad cow, and softwood lumber before it; Keystone-XL is just the latest barometer with which Canada-US relations are being assessed. It is also the latest narrative depicting Washington as thwarting the rule of law, undermining the spirit of cooperation and stomping on generations of amity and friendship between the two countries. Keystone-XL fiasco and the institutional differences between a Canadian prime minister and an American president. Which chief executive is actually the more powerful? Hands down, it’s a Canadian prime minister. In Canada, the legislative and executive branches of government are one and the same, with huge authority given to the PM and the cabinet to set, pass and implement the legislative agenda. Moreover, party discipline significantly restricts the policy entrepreneurship of individual members of Parliament.

An American president does not have such luxuries and is institutionally very weak (again, by Madison’s design). The main calculus for President Obama in the Keystone-XL decision may have been election-year politics, but there were many moving parts over which he had little control, most notably the US Congress. The three most recent American presidents — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — all governed briefly with same party majorities in both the House and Senate. Nevertheless, all three presidents were spectacularly unsuccessful in implementing big pieces of their agendas. A Canadian prime minister in the same situation would have no such trouble.

Such basic differences between the two countries might seem obvious, but they are anything but obvious to far too many Canadians, including those in elected office and the business community. They are fundamental to the management of Canada-US relations.

Yet Canadians are poorly served when it comes to instruction about its most important ally and trading partner.

Canadian universities are surprisingly under-resourced when it comes to American politics, history, economics and culture. There are scattered professors in these subject areas, but there are only two programs with an undergraduate major and minor (the universities of British Columbia and Toronto) and there is only one graduate program (Western Ontario) dedicated to US content. Even within these programs, for most students the first formal instruction in American politics comes in the third year of university, and it is taught at the level of basic high school civics, which is far too superficial and too late for students to gain a functional understanding of the United States before they enter the Canadian labour force. For all the talk about diversification of Canada’s export markets, the United States remains the most important by several orders of magnitude. The ability of Canadian firms to effectively interpret, anticipate and navigate their way around the American political, regulatory and security landscapes is a matter of existential importance.

Worse still, Canada’s capacity when it comes to research into and teaching about the United States has been stagnant or declining for years. An entire cohort of American professors hired in and around the Vietnam era, some of them draft dodgers, have retired from teaching. With only a few exceptions, most have not been replaced, or they have been replaced by scholars whose research and teaching have little to do with the United States.

Chronic underfunding of higher education in Canada is partly — but only partly — to blame for having gutted the nation’s research and teaching capacity on the United States. In 2000, the Canadian government created the Canada Research Chair (CRC) program to significantly augment Canada’s research and development excellence across the entire spectrum of academic disciplines. Some $300 million a year is spent to attract and retain top-notch research faculty at Canadian universities. However, of the 1,800 CRCs currently spread across the county, none are currently held by scholars whose primary research interests include the United States.

Other efforts to fill this void have included the creation of institutes and schools to pool the limited US expertise on any given campus. One notable success story seems to be the Centre for the Study of the United States at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, which after years of being a weak umbrella body for a broad collection of scholars and centres, has become a genuine, coherent school of international affairs that offers an undergraduate major and minor in US studies.

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It’s no surprise that environmentalists and ranchers — strange bedfellows to say the least — ended up on the same side of the argument. However, that TransCanada managed to put them on the same side of this issue, and appeared powerless to manage the backlash it created, represents a stunning failure to appreciate the complexities of the American political system.

There were two notable experiments at the universities of Alberta and Calgary shortly after the mad cow crisis, and at around the same time the Alberta Office was established in the Canadian embassy in Washington, DC, in 2005. At both schools, institutes were established that would pool US relevant research and policy expertise from a number of disciplines and function as quasi-think tanks. But the University of Calgary’s institute closed its doors in 2009, and the University of Alberta struggles to find a sustainable business model in the midst of tight provincial budgets and increases to university operating grants below the rate of inflation.

The contrast with what has been happening recently in Australia could not be starker. In 2006, John Howard’s government helped to create a $25 million endowment for the establishment of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. Its mission is very simple: to increase the understanding of the United States in Australia and become the leading academic institution outside America for the study of the United States. Arguably they have succeeded: they have attracted permanent and visiting scholars from Australia and the United States; they have hosted a bi-annual summit on the United States, which engages nonuniversity stakeholders from the public and private sectors; and, most importantly, they have launched robust undergraduate and graduate academic programs.

In Canada the provincial and the federal governments seemed to recognize there was a problem after the terrorist attacks on the United States in September 2001. Ottawa’s incapacity to influence US border policy in the ensuing years prompted a re-evaluation by the Canadian School of Public Service in 2004 of the training it gave to foreign service officers about the United States. However, the 2003 Mad Cow crisis and Ottawa’s apparent inability to reopen the border to Alberta beef exports prompted a renewed push for an independent set of eyes and ears in Washington. This prompted the establishment of the Alberta Office in the Canadian embassy and the appointment of former Alberta energy minister Murray Smith as envoy. He was followed by former health minister Gary Mar, and the most recent appointment was former Calgary mayor David Bronconnier, on an interim basis. Why Premier Alison Redford hasn’t named a permanent envoy to Alberta’s most important market in a presidential election year is baffling. Quebec has maintained an ambiguous independence in the US capital since 1978, but no other provinces have followed Alberta after 2005. Provinces have invested considerably in building regional relations with their US counterparts through organizations like the Pacific North-West Economic Region and the Council of State Governments or joint meetings among adjacent premiers and governors. Yet, just as the United States cannot be fully appreciated from inside the Beltway, it can just as scarcely be understood through official contacts in state capitals.

The political pendulum in America is increasingly swinging toward the desert southwest, where Latinos, a diverse and fast-growing minority, loom large as a potent political force. Mexico, in particular, arguably casts a longer political shadow than Canada. The recent Mexican presidential elections garnered considerable attention in the United States, and not just from Latinos. While Ottawa was busy closing consulates in the United States in the 1990s, Mexico was doing the opposite, extending its eyes and ears throughout the country, increasing Mexico City’s capacity to anticipate and interpret what was happening in the United States that might affect its interests.

Ottawa has reversed some of this incapacity but maintains a stoic indifference toward Latin America, and Mexico in particular, that has indirectly undermined its ability to interpret the United States. The demise of the Canadian Foundation for the Americas in mid-2011 was a body blow to what remained of Canada’s credibility in the Americas, as was the government’s overnight decision to impose tough new visa requirements on Mexican travellers to Canada in 2009. The visa mess in particular is part of a recent pattern emanating from Ottawa aimed at rebilateralizing North American relations. Rather than working trilaterally with the United States and Mexico, Ottawa seems convinced that it can get more traction on important issues by dealing with Washington on its own. Not only has this strategy netted few tangible benefits for Canada, it short-sightedly minimizes the importance of Mexico in the United States and in the American political system.

The absence of Canadian eyes and ears on the ground in the United States has recently been increased as a result of the budget cuts to the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Those cuts include the elimination of all Canadian studies programing abroad, including the United States. While the net result of funding scholarly research activities about Canada by American scholars is hard to measure, research and teaching about Canada at American universities significantly increased the awareness of Canada among those who studied with or took classes from those scholars. The dividends on those investments will be paid when those students end up in positions of influence in government or the private sector.

As the University of Lethbridge’s Geoffrey Hale points out in his recent book So Near Yet So Far, Canada is in a tough position when it comes to US policy-making. On the one hand, Canada is just another foreign country trying to get attention in a city (Washington, DC) that is notoriously difficult to be noticed in unless you are a rogue state, have been taken over by drug cartels or are in the midst of a financial panic that threatens the global economy. On the other hand, the degree of amity and integration between the two countries has resulted in many Canadian issues being essentially treated as US domestic matters. No other country in the world enjoys such a privilege. However, that “special” status comes with a price in that Canada is also just another of the plethora of domestic interest groups vying for attention throughout the United States.

Hale’s book should be required reading for every bureaucrat and CEO in Canada whose file involves the United States. Given the country’s dependence on the US market, that should mean a lot of book sales. As TransCanada’s CEO, Russ Girling, has learned the hard way, the United States is a tough place to do business. But if indeed Canadian issues are largely domestic in US policy terms, then Canadians need to be as well versed about the American political system as Americans themselves.

Burney and Hampson argue that Obama “lost Canada.” The President likely doesn’t think he’s lost anything. And he’s right. What has been “lost” are some of the personal ties between the leadership in the two countries that make those of an earlier generation yearn for the good ol’ days of Canada-US relations. The diplomatic culture between the two nations that was forged fighting the Nazis in the Second World War and sustained them during the Cold War no longer exists. Canada has made a significant contribution to the Afghan mission, but it is also true that America’s experience (both diplomatic and military) since September 2001 has been very different than Canada’s. A whole generation of American foreign service officers and military personnel have had their formative experiences dealing with what the Bush administration called the Global War on Terror (GWOT). The Obama administration long ago stopped calling it GWOT but has arguably expanded it, and it certainly remains global.

Canadians and Americans still pick up the phone and talk to one another with a facility few other pairs of countries enjoy. However, the glue of the experiences that officials from both countries shared has arguably come undone. Canadians have always had a certain myopia regarding their importance in the United States. America’s enormous global agenda and far-flung interests have always meant that issues like softwood lumber or Buy America, while barometers of Canada-US relations for Canadians, are a long way down the list of America’s priorities. Couple this with the fact that so many Canadian issues in an integrated North America are essentially domestic for the United States, and Canada is increasingly just another interest group.

The traditional Canadian debate over the diversification of its economy in the aftermath of the Keystone-XL decision also reflects a complacency in Canada about its relationship with the United States. Shipping more Alberta bitumen to Asia might be great for Alberta and great for Canada. But when framed in an implied threat to Washington that Canada will increasingly turn its attentions elsewhere, it is an empty threat. A serious west coast outlet for Asia-bound Alberta bitumen is at least a decade away. Moreover, as Canadian natural gas producers have learned in recent years, technological change (i.e., hydraulic fracking) can transform supply and demand dynamics almost overnight.

While all of the talk of Asian markets generates feel-good headlines in the wake of a perceived slap in the face from President Obama over Keystone, Canada’s hopes too often rest on the shoals of “special relationships” or the goodwill that has seen thousands of miles of “undefended borders” between the two countries. Instead, Canada has squandered its privileged position, unwilling to invest the resources into understanding its most important and proximate ally and trading partner. For all of these reasons, Canada should stop relying on Wolf Blitzer and put its resources into knowing America better than any other country, including Israel, Great Britain, Australia, Saudi Arabia and Germany.

So has Obama “lost” Canada? Perhaps. It always takes two to tango, particularly in a relationship as complex as this. But it has become a relationship Canadians no long seem to understand. Crying foul every time Uncle Sam sticks it to Canadian interests is important, but doing so with the deepest understanding of America outside of America itself would be far better. Proximity and interdependence give Canada advantages vis-à-vis the United States enjoyed by no other country. They are advantages that are not being maximized.

As a result, there will be more Keystone-XLs, more mad cow-like episodes and more initiatives that sweep out of American states that will leave Canadians scratching their heads at their treatment by Uncle Sam.

Photo: Shutterstock by Kodda

Greg Anderson
Greg Anderson is an associate professor of political science at the University of Alberta and research director at the Alberta Institute for American Studies.

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