Coyne v. Wells: Border dispute

Is Canada’s relationship with the U.S. cooling off? Or is it as strong as ever?

Paul Wells and Andrew Coyne
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Coyne v Wells - Border disputeOn Jan. 20, Maclean’s presents “Canada-U.S.: Best Friends or Perfect Strangers?” a round­table discussion at the Newseum in Washington. Panellists will include Gary Doer, Canada’s ambassador to the United States, Sen. Pamela Wallin, David Frum, a former speech writer for George W. Bush and editor of, Maryscott Greenwood, senior managing director at McKenna, Long & Aldridge, and Christopher Sands, a senior fellow at Hudson Institute. Maclean’s Andrew Coyne and Paul Wells will also join the panel. CPAC’s Peter Van Dusen will host the event, with opening remarks by Maclean’s Luiza Ch. Savage. This week, Coyne and Wells kick off the debate.

PAUL WELLS: Andrew, remember George W. Bush’s speech to Congress after 9/11, when Tony Blair sat next to Laura Bush in the gallery? Remember the weird national crisis of confidence over Bush’s failure to list Canada among the allies of the United States?

I sometimes wonder what would happen in similar circumstances today. I hope we’ll never know. But I can’t imagine Stephen Harper—or for that matter, a post-election Michael Ignatieff—sitting next to Michelle Obama for any major speech by the current President. I can easily imagine Obama or some other U.S. president rattling off a list of friendly countries and forgetting Canada again. The only difference is, if it happened again I think there’d be less national hand-wringing than in 2001.

Drift and neglect continue in the relationship between Canada and the U.S., but Canadians are getting used to it. Relations between our leaders have cooled significantly in the past 10 years. The two countries are growing apart. Growth in Canadian trade with non-U.S. markets has surpassed growth of trade with the United States in every year since 2000. Security obstacles at the border are multiplying. Europe continues to integrate. We’re through the looking glass when it’s easier to travel between Berlin and Warsaw than between Vancouver and Seattle.

Canadians are so ambivalent about the U.S. that a lot will see this as good news. I don’t. But the phenomenon is interesting any way you slice it. What way forward do you see for Canada-U.S. relations?

ANDREW COYNE: Paul, we are alike in desiring close relations between the two countries, which will set some of our readers’ teeth on edge. But where you, my melancholy friend, see only bilateral drift and diffidence—we never talk, we avoid each other in the halls—I see a relationship that is broadly healthy: healthier than at most times in our history, in fact.

Think back to Diefenbaker’s refusal to put our forces on alert during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Or Pearson’s prim lectures to the Americans about Vietnam, on American soil no less (“Les, you pissed on my rug,” LBJ is said to have growled at him). Remember how frosty things got in Trudeau’s time. Canadians are far less reflexively insecure about America than they were, as you note. That’s a good thing.

You’re right that the share of our trade going to the U.S. has declined in recent years, but only from its post-Free Trade Agreement highs. It’s still well above historic levels, and will probably pick up as the U.S. economy recovers. And you’re right that Americans’ (understandable, mostly) security concerns continue to bedevil us. But I think we’re managing as well as any two sovereign nations might: indeed, we’re in talks on a comprehensive new security co-operation agreement, one that has nationalists in this country up in arms.

As long as the Council of Canadians are worried, I’m thinking things are probably okay.

PW: Oh yay, we’re in talks for a security agreement. By “we,” I assume you mean “secret negotiating teams whose existence is unacknowledged until months into their work.” I’m not worried about these talks, particularly, because if there’s a whiff of political trouble the Prime Minister will drop the whole idea the way he dropped the Potash Corp. sale. He reserves his tenacity for the big fights, like the census.

You’re right that relations are not as bad as they’ve ever been. Nor are they as good as they often were. We’re still a long way from the construction of NORAD, or Canada-U.S. free trade, or Chrétien and Clinton promising hemispheric free trade. The Treaty of Rome calls for an “ever closer union” among European nations; on this side of the Atlantic, it’s “how do you feel” and “what do we think we can get away with.”

These days, Harper evokes co-operation with the Americans when he wants to make sure serious work—of course I’m thinking about action on climate change—doesn’t get done.

AC: Well yes, there’s only so many times you can invent NORAD or sign a comprehensive free trade agreement. If Canada-U.S. affairs seem less heady now, it’s largely owing to the success of past efforts. The few trade spats that still occasionally flare up are a tiny fraction of our overall trade. Even in the middle of the worst financial crisis in 75 years, we were able to head off the Buy America threat with a little deft stickhandling.

Beyond that, I’m not sure there are such fresh fields of mutual co-operation open to us as you imply. I’m all for free trade, and probably there are some areas, like climate change, where we could sensibly harmonize the two countries’ policies. But I see no need to go as far as, say, a customs union, as some have suggested. Call me a sovereignist, but I’d like to preserve our freedom to pursue our own trade policy with other nations, always hoping that policy will be free trade.

The two big remaining files on our desk are finding some way to prevent American security fears from impeding trade (your skepticism of our seriousness here may be justified), and answering environmental concerns about the oil sands. Those strike me as manageable, if unexciting.

PW: You really have to be Canadian to think this has to be the way of the world: increasing hassle to cross the border; a lack of shared purpose between neighbours; and an approach to foreign policy that might best be summed up, on either side of the border, as: “I dunno, what do you want to do?” Whatever the two governments sign on border security, I’ll be shocked if it provides more than marginal improvement to border chaos that no two industrialized countries should tolerate. Worse: no other industrialized countries are tolerating it. Europe may sound effete in some circles, but as long as a Volkswagen made in Poznan can be sold a week later in Madrid, we’re the ones who risk looking quaint.

But what I’m mourning is something a little less tangible. Presidents and prime ministers have spent 150 years telling each other we’re the best friends in the world. Is benign neglect a cornerstone of a healthy friendship?

AC: The general tone is hardly inspiring, agreed. But I remain cautiously optimistic about the chances for a security agreement.

Certainly on the American side, there is more interest than there has been in years. The economic slump has altered the relative weights of security and commerce in American calculations: in an integrated continental economy, as you point out, border delays aren’t just a nuisance, but a competitive disadvantage. At the same time, the budget deficit and the emergence of homegrown security threats have highlighted the futility of attempts to hermetically seal the border. Both argue for a more cost-effective approach, one that treats Canada as part of the solution rather than problem. On our side, Harper will have a much better chance of selling an agreement with Obama than he would with any Republican president, let alone George W. Bush.

So the issue is really whether Harper is willing to take a modest risk, invest some political capital, and get out in front on an issue that has festered for years. I grant you the track record is not encouraging.

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