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Analysis & Commentary

The American card

From The National, Dec. 22, 2005
Reporter: Brian Stewart

There are political points to be scored criticizing the U.S. during the campaign, but there are possible pitfalls too. And what does the seeming mistrust of the U.S. reveal about us?

A tiff with Washington can be useful in campaigns, sometimes called the American card. But this went beyond tiff and hit raw nerve.

At the climate conference in Montreal, Prime Minister Paul Martin said. "To the reticent nations, including the United States, I'd say this. There is such a thing as a global conscience."

David Wilkins, the U.S. ambassador, replied a few days later, "It's a slippery slope, and all of us should hope that it doesn't have a long-term impact on our relationship."

Paul Martin responded. "I am not going to be dictated to."

As a sign of low regard, one has to go all the way back to the campaigns of the early 1960s to find comparison. In the famed Diefenbaker-Kennedy feud in which the prime minister blamed the White House for helping collapse his minority government.

"He was out to destroy me," Diefenbaker said. "That was his objective, 100 per cent, and he used similar tactics in other countries."

So, yes, past tensions, yet this mood seems remarkably toxic and springs in part from a virtual sea change in public attitudes. Through the '80s and '90s, most of us, usually 70 per cent, had favourable views of the U.S., but since Bush arrived in 2001, there has been a sharp plunge to only 50 per cent favourable in a recent CBC Environics poll, while negative views have quickly soared to striking heights. Bush himself gets overwhelming 79 per cent negative ratings in Canada, the most unpopular president here since polling began.

What are we to make of this? I talked to two prominent writers on Canada's foreign relations. Andrew Cohen in Ottawa, a former Washington correspondent, and in Regina, Jennifer Welsh, Oxford professor frequently consulted by western governments.

And I wonder, are we entering uncharted waters here?

"There is a sensitivity in Washington now about Canada, and I think it was the issue the prime minister chose to disagree on. Kyoto. The United States has emissions that are lower than ours, and here was the prime minister of Canada taking the American president to task over a lack of global conscience. I think that was a bit rich for them and so there it was, the ambassador responded. Interestingly enough, the ambassador has since told people he was a little surprised by the level of reaction in Canada. He shouldn't have been. These things are toxic in the Canadian political conversation," Cohen says.

"Coupled with that, and I do think that this is new and it's feeding the Canadian perception, is the sense that the United States is losing its moral authority," Welsh says. "I think Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, the sense that the United States has not necessarily been willing to abide by the rules, all of these things created a sense that that beacon on a hill, that country that stood for good in the world, is actually much more complex, and that perception, which is fed by those kinds of events, I think has really hit the Canadian psyche."

Values, understanding have also diverged as the power centre of the U.S. has shifted from states that bordered Canada to Bush's southwest. It's an America Canadians seem to understand less and less.

"The Bush administration is very much a southwestern phenomenon," Welsh says. "The people in the White House around the president do not have the kind of experience in dealing with Canada in the creation of big important institutions like NATO, for example, like the big trade agreements of the past. That isn't there, and I think that's what makes us frustrated when we see things like the softwood lumber issue. We think, why can't we just get the United States to abide by the rules when there's actually Congress involved in making this all tick and work, and Canadians aren't that smart about how congress works?"

"As Jennifer has just said, we think we understand the United States when, in fact, we don't. I'm not so sure we grasped in Canada how much things changed in the United States after Sept. 11," Cohen says. "I know there was an outpouring of grief among Canadians and expressions of concern, but the United States was and is a nation at war. It may not seem so to us every day from where we sit, but nonetheless, that has changed the psychology of the United States and made them very suspicious of neighbours."

"When I speak to American colleagues, frequently I hear, you don't seem to understand the threat as we understand it, and part of that comes from the rhetoric that's been given to the American people," Welsh says. "You know, we are under siege and also we will go it alone if we have to. We are strong enough to go it alone, and I think that also breeds a feeling in Americans that in some ways they are alone."

In this new climate, Canada has become less popular to the south. Once rarely thought of, now a growing target of media ridicule, easily dismissed.

Tucker Carlson said on MSNBC, "Canada is essentially a stalker stalking the United States, right? Canada has little pictures of us in its bedroom."

And Lou Dobbs on CNN, "Some Canadian politicians are criticizing the United States to win political points in their election campaign."

Okay, given this change, Martin chooses this time to criticize quite openly and blatantly the U.S. government. What are the political risks of this?

"There's a worry that the Prime Minister Martin may be painted like Schroeder in Germany was, which was anti-American, someone you can't deal with, an unreliable ally, and someone you cannot talk to," Cohen says. "That is very dangerous for Canada and Washington. I'm not saying we're there yet, but if you have Schroederesque tendencies, you will be frozen out by Washington and that won't be a good thing for things like softwood lumber and reviewing NORAD next year. There's a point at which it's dangerous for Canada."

Is Canada being hypocritical in picking the environment to complain about and not actually being more open in criticism on major blockages like the Iraq war?

"There's a danger of being accused of being sanctimonious, morally superior, smug, a moral power rather than a military power," Cohen says. "I think you can do that, but you have to have credibility. You have to be doing other things in the world in a forceful way to allow yourself to do that. You can't just get up and swat the United States whenever you want and hope to be taken seriously if you yourself are not out in the world doing things."

"I'm a little nervous about us getting back to the position that says unless you're a strong military power, you don't have the right to criticize," Welsh says. "On the questions of Guantanamo Bay, what we need to be saying to the United States is, you call yourself the world's biggest and best democracy, surely the rights of individuals must be paramount and you're doing yourself no good in terms of your reputation to be pursuing the treatment of those prisoners in that way. I don't think you need to be the second largest army in the world to say those things to the United States. You just have to say them with tact and with understanding."

"No, but, Jennifer, if you want to be taken seriously, you have to pick your spots and pick your issues, and a lot of this can be done using quiet diplomacy," Cohen says. "It doesn't always have to be done using a megaphone and in an election campaign. I don't think we've always been good about choosing those moments."

"But that being said about the megaphone, it's important to Canadians to see their government voicing those concerns," Welsh says, "If it's all left to diplomacy, Canadians themselves might miss those signals, so granted there's a very delicate road to take, but I for one would want my politicians to be raising those issues, not just diplomats."

A vital subject, and diplomats will be watching candidates closely to see if they stir up a new Canada-U.S. storm during remaining debates.

 


# # [an error occurred while processing this directive]
ELECTION RESULTSDetails>
1241035129
Total Elected and Leading
CON124036.27%
LIB103030.23%
BQ51010.48%
NDP29017.48%
IND10.52%
OTH005.02%

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