Michael Hart is too modest when he writes of his study that it is an attempt to ”œmake a contribution to the histo- ry of ideas and public policy.” This book, by one of Canada’s most important practitioners and scholars of trade diplomacy, illuminates anew a key aspect of Canada’s heart and soul””its calling as a trading nation. It does so admittedly not by dwelling abstractly on historical or ideological trends, but by focusing on the con- tribution to Canada’s growing pros- perity and influence made by key, often hard-nosed individuals who steered Canada’s commercial policy through the shoals of international transformations in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Hart’s work here is in the mould of that of renowned historian Paul Johnson. The narrative flows like that of a good novel””at least for those with a modicum of interest in this topic. On substance, the study provides a histor- ical perspective that is too often lack- ing in contemporary debates about Canada’s place in North America and in the world at large. It illuminates the pivotal role of broad-minded individu- als in devising policies for the public good, while vividly rendering the nar- row political and institutional con- fines, domestic and international, often confronting them. Best of all, this book challenges a few impressions that Canadians often have of them- selves and of their role in shaping a better world.
One such impression is that of Canadians as the ”œnice guys,” always ready to do their part to ensure smooth sailing in international rela- tions. As a description of a strategic position, this may be true insofar as it was never in Canada’s interest to deeply antagonize the bigger players. In this book, however, Canadian poli- cy often appears for what it was: calcu- lating and cynical, seeking maximum access for exports and goading other nations into exercising leadership in opening world markets, while pioneer- ing tortuous discriminatory fiscal and administrative devices that ”œscientifi- cally” targeted foreign products com- peting with existing domestic output.
The contents of this Pandora’s box of trade-restrictive devices have spread with gusto around the world and, as in the case of anti-dumping rules, have sometimes become institutionalized. Nowadays, Canada often bitterly com- plains about such measures, but the ”œbad guys” were us. Even the valiant Canadian attempts at shoring up Britain economically after World War II were, according to Hart, rooted as much in the hope for domestic rewards as in the more purely emotional bonds that still existed with the Empire.
If there is any continuity in Canada’s commercial policy since before Confederation, it is indeed a search for accommodation with the ”œbig guys” on which markets and thus prosperity clearly depended. This has been particularly true, of course, with respect to the United States, a fact often obscured by recur- ring bursts of autarchic mythology, or by quixotic attempts at finding ”œthird options” for enhancing Canadian trade prospects.
Hart reminds us that the actions of successful Canadian commercial policy-makers””politicians first, then successive generations of increasingly professional and sophisticated civil servants””exhibit a striking leitmotiv in regard to the United States. The lure of improved access to the US market, that first surfaces in the book in a description of illegal trade with the Americans as being a ”œmainstay of Canadian economic reality,” exert- ed a constant influence. Few Canadian governments were seriously unwilling to contemplate more open markets. This reality manifested itself not only during times of great public debate about the orientation of Canada’s commercial and economic policy, but, as often and more quietly, in the commercial links that were forged by successive Canadian gov- ernments outside of those great national debates.
While Canadians adroitly played the protectionist game, this was almost always a second best (and, preferably, flexible) option. The theory of the second best suggests that the damaging effects on welfare of a mar- ket barrier may actually be reduced by the introduction of another, offsetting distortion. It is in this context that I place Hart’s reminder that John A. Macdonald devised his National Policy as a reaction to rising protectionism south of the border, and that he saw it as a temporary expedient in the hope of bringing back reciprocity with the United States that had been lost in 1864. Likewise, Canada’s farm protec- tion programs were spurred on by dev- astatingly parochial farm policies that prevailed in the United States until, in the 1960’s, that country also tried to undo what it had unleashed.
While the book is a tremendous- ly enjoyable and educational read, I have found a few particular aspects of it somewhat frustrating. More than a few tables relate imper- fectly to the text they are supposed to illustrate. And while each chapter is suitable as a self-contained piece, a clear advantage for those interested in specific sub-periods, many historical data are divided up by time periods and dispersed through the text. Longer historical tables in an appen- dix might have been more useful. There is also a dearth of French-lan- guage sources, although as a Francophone who tends to write on this topic in English, I am ill-placed to comment. The glossary is, however, a very useful addition.
Reading the book, it often seems as if Canada’s commercial policy has consisted historically of taking two steps forward toward open markets, then either one and a half or two and a half steps backward, depending on the constraints of the day. Taking a leaf from Mr. Micawber, one could say that the outcome of the former movement is happiness, and that of the latter mis- ery for the Canadian economy. Fortunately, Canada has had the wis- dom to do more of the former.
The book also demonstrates that more open trade has not come at the expense of Canada’s independent abil- ity to forge a favourable set of domes- tic policies for Canadians, but that trade, and particularly continental trade, can never be far from the Canadian government’s policy agenda. For Canadians, a strong position domestically and a strong position internationally are inexctricably linked.