The Nanos poll revealing growing divergence of views between Canadians and Americans should not surprise anyone. But Canada is not to blame for the fact that we are drifting apart on so many issues, as some allege. Partisan sniping, or the well-known proclivity of Canadians to blame themselves when things sour – our ingrained apologist streak – should not blind us to reality. Canadians must wake up to what many of America’s erstwhile allies learned much earlier: The Obama Administration is one of, if not the weakest U.S. administrations on record in terms of global leadership and constructive bilateralism. That, together with a polarized, dysfunctional Congress and, more generally, an America that is turning inwards are among the reasons why the neighbourhood ardor is waning. And it is not simply Canadians who feel that way. Our Mexican friends feel jilted on immigration and border security, two issues that matter greatly to them. So too do America’s allies across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans whose profound sense of frustration with an America in retreat is palpable.
The drumbeat of criticism about the Obama presidency does not end there. It is unrelenting within America itself. Mr. Obama’s former CIA Director and then Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, a staunch Democratic icon, laments most recently from his own personal experience that the President “doesn’t engage and doesn’t deliver.” And he is not the first (nor surely the last) former senior administration official to deliver such a damning indictment of his boss. Mr. Obama’s first secretary of defence, Robert Gates, landed the first punch.
Hobbled by his own zigzags on global policy and by domestic fiascoes like Obamacare and scandals plaguing the IRS and the Secret Service, the President is being benched deliberately by some in his own party fighting for re–election in the mid-terms next month. His numbers are at all-time lows and a White House shake up – a sure sign of crisis – is widely rumoured as being imminent.
Some Canadians may crave a “special relationship” with the U.S., as many others do as well, but the reality is that America institutionally is neither willing nor capable of reciprocating. It is time Canadians accepted that reality.
Despite substantial investments by Canada to strengthen security and surveillance along our shared border, there has been little practical dividend from America. The hassle on travelers and exporters alike has increased, not abated. The warm winter weather remains as the singular magnet for Canadian tourists.
The stonewalling over the Keystone pipeline, protectionist Buy America and beef labelling actions, along with the complete abdication of partnership on building the new Windsor-Detroit bridge, do not suggest much enthusiasm in Washington for a productive, bilateral partnership.
Furthermore, Canada’s ready response to alliance solidarity whether in Afghanistan or now in Iraq – two regions where we have no direct interests of our own – elicit no discernible response, let alone reward.
Rather than fretting about malign neglect or perversely seeing ourselves as responsible for the current state of affairs, Canadians should accept the fact that America is pulling back from its role of global leader, preferring, in Obama’s words to “lead from behind”, becoming increasingly self-centered and attaching less of a priority across the board to relations with allies and neighbours.
Relations with the U.S. will always be a priority for Canada, even if the reverse is not the case, and safeguarding our interests in that market will require constant care and vigilance. Geography will always determine much of our destiny but geography and sentiment should not limit our outlook or our ambition. It is time to look beyond our North American cocoon and replace sentiment with substance.
We should recalibrate our bilateral relationship and counterbalance it with global priorities that give greater emphasis to economic and security ties with Asia/Pacific partners, countries where the demographics and urbanization trends play to our comparative advantages. Two-thirds of global economic growth in the past five years has been in Emerging Markets, notably in Asia. We will have to work harder to gain access to these markets and we may have to adjust our security commitments as well away from a NATO exclusive fixation. But the more we are determined to play a global role in line with our own interests the better we will also be at managing relations with an America very much in flux.