The180·The 180

It's time for Canada to think for itself

Irvin Studin, editor of the Canadian foreign affairs magazine Global Brief, says the Trump administration is the wake-up call Canada needs, so it can finally stop following in America's footsteps.

With the new U.S. administration withdrawing from trade talks, building walls, and placing aggressive calls to long-time allies, now is the time for Canada to step forward, says Irvin Studin, editor of the Canadian foreign policy magazine Global Brief.

Studin is a Fellow at the University of Toronto's School of Public Policy and Governance, and President of the foreign affairs think-tank The Institute for 21st Century Questions. He says Canada has been stuck in America's shadow for too long, and Trump is the impetus for us to think for ourselves.

This interview has been edited for length

What do you mean by Canada thinking for itself?

I should say at the outset that I'm certainly not anti-American, I'm a big admirer of the American civilization. We are of that world. But Canada is created constitutionally as a negation of the United States. However, over the last, I would say half-century or seventy-five years, and certainly since September 11th, we have increasingly not just aligned ourselves, but almost identified ourselves consciously and unconsciously with the United States in value terms and cultural terms. Even if we proclaim that we're thinking for ourselves, when you enter the Chapters bookstore, we typically claim it's about a 10 to 1 ratio of American to Canadian production, but really it's about 50 to 1. When you turn on the television we're bombarded by American stimuli. Politically now, we're bombarded by the American narrative. The paradox is that we're now at a moment of great international stress, where the Americans really have no wisdom to offer us. So strategically, there's an imperative to think for itself, and in terms of opportunity, it's a great moment for Canada to plan its next 150 years.

You say that this alignment with the United States has intensified since 9/11, but we didn't follow the U.S. into Iraq.

That's absolutely true, there are moments of exception. But even if we like to proclaim that we're independent and we're thinking for ourselves, we can't help but be bombarded by American terms. They are the term-setters. In international affairs magazines - until Global Brief we used to have top international thinkers in Canada put The Economist up with one hand and Foreign Affairs magazine with the other, or the New York Times dare I say, and say 'well these are the terms. This is the state of the debate.' And not even realizing how strange that picture looks: the Americans set the general terms and we plug ourselves into it almost unconsciously. Can we now consciously determine as a country that we're going to plan the next hundred years? If we're going to survive this century, which will be much more difficult strategically for us, there's a lot of stresses around us, we're going to have to be much more bloody-minded and strategic. 

Aren't there benefits though, to living in this shadow? We get to be part of NORAD, NASA, we get American television, we get Big Macs and Wendy's, isn't all that stuff pretty good?

One-hundred percent. And when it's better than what comes out of Canada, or more cutting edge, or wiser, then we're happy to be in that paradigm. But when there is madness coming out of the American project - and dare I say the Trump administration is just symptomatic of a general decline - there have been huge catastrophes of strategic judgement by the United States over the last fifteen years. We've been party to some of it, and not party, as you mentioned with the Iraq case, happily. But from here on in I see there is nothing they can commend to us. We're going to have to take some decisions. Some of them will be aligned with American decision-making, but it will be very unsentimentally in our national interest.

Let me go a little bit further. I think, and I've been arguing this for the last seven or eight years, that one way to focus the mind is to say: over the next century, we will have a population of 100 million spread across the country. We will be the second-biggest country in the West, demographically, bigger than any country in Europe, almost as big as Russia, and second only to the United States. That is a way to focus the national mind. In the short term, whereas the Americans have been picking off Canadian talent, consciously and unconsciously over the last 70 years, now is an opportunity for us to do the reverse. We must be very unsentimental about it. We should be picking off American talent across the sectors. In sciences, in culture, in business, and everything in between. This is an opportunity for Canada to create some of the strategic bulwark to think for itself. 

But really though, with Trump in the White House, just how different are the interests of Canada and the U.S.? Aren't we still generally aligned?

On some questions we're aligned. On other questions we're not. Let's look at our basic border configuration. We don't even have the same borders as the United States. We don't have a border with Mexico or Latin America. We are in many ways closer to Asia, even geographically than the United States. We are closer to China, We have a direct border with Russia now that the arctic is melting and we will feel it much more acutely than the Americans will. And we are much more integrated in the European project than the Americans who carved themselves out of Europe when they had their revolution. So we have a completely different border configuration. 

We shouldn't assume that we share the same narrative, and the same destiny.- Irvin Studin, Editor, Global Brief magazine

Another way of looking at it is these are Great Powers at our borders this century, and they're going to squeeze us if we don't bulk up and think for ourselves. So there will be moments where we happily align with the United States. But we shouldn't presume that they have our back when the going gets tough in points of crisis, and certainly on value judgements. If you look at immigration, our social fabric, our majority/minority relations, our federalism, we have a different political question altogether. We shouldn't assume that we share the same narrative, and the same destiny.

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