Roy Rempel, Citizen Special
Published: Friday, March 31, 2006
I like to stand up to the Americans. It's popular.
-- Jean Chretien, former prime minister - - -
In July 1997, then-prime minister Jean Chretien attended a summit meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Spain. While speaking with prime minister Jean-Luc Dehaene of Belgium, before the meeting began, Mr. Chretien made some candid comments about American foreign policy. "All the [American] politicians would be in prison ... [in] your country and my country," he stated, because, "they sell their votes." He argued that the expansion of NATO's membership had nothing to do with "world security" and instead was driven by the desire of the Clinton administration to buy votes domestically.
What Chretien did not realize was that he was speaking into an open mike and that his comments were being picked up by the media. While some might be tempted to dismiss the remarks as the type of chatter that might result from political frustration over this or that issue, they nevertheless expose an anti-American tendency long evident in Canadian international policy. Indeed, Chretien bluntly indicated that he regarded anti-Americanism as politically useful. "I like to stand up to the Americans. It's popular," he told his Belgian counterpart. He bragged that on the issue of Cuba, for instance, "I was the first one to stand up. And people like that." He did acknowledge, however, that, "you have to be very careful because they're our friends."
This mentality is hardly unique to the former prime minister. Prime minister Paul Martin played to the same sentiment in his decision to reject a Canadian role in ballistic-missile defence. Anti-Americanism was also a prominent theme in the Liberal Party's 2005-06 election campaign. While this may be counterproductive in terms of advancing Canadian interests, Jack Granatstein has noted that Canadian "political and cultural elites continue to use anti-Americanism for their own purposes."
In other words, it is particular domestic political objectives that are perceived to be advanced by anti-Americanism. Most Canadian leaders, with the exception of some, such as Brian Mulroney, have viewed Canada-U.S. relations in this context. Regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats have dominated the political scene in the United States, playing an anti-American card has been perceived as generating political payoffs.
That anti-Americanism is seen as politically useful is indicative of something else. It reveals much about what Canadian international policy has become, in a general sense. Instead of being about advancing the national interest, foreign policy is perceived by many politicians as an extension of domestic partisan politics.
Despite the similarities between Canadian and American values and interests, much of the Canadian elite nevertheless believes that its values are fundamentally different from those of their American counterparts. While this policy has deep roots, this perception has grown since the election of George W. Bush as president in the United States. ...
In an article in March of 2005, former foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy argued that members of the Bush administration needed to "learn a thing or two" from Canadian values. He argued that unlike in the United States, where massive tax breaks were given to the top one per cent of the population "while cutting food programs for poor children," Canada was governed by a "different set of priorities." Internationally, he argued, this manifested itself in a foreign policy that protectd the rights of people, not just nation-states. The United States was of course said to be doing exactly the opposite. "There are times," he said "when truth [meaning Canada] must speak to power [meaning the United States]."
Obviously, official government statements do not refer to Canada as truth incarnate. Yet this general attitude has come to underscore much of Canada's international policy. At the heart of this is the belief that Canada is not only different from that of the United States, but morally superior. In the end, it is the wrong way to approach international policy and our relationship with the United States. While ordinary Canadians have the luxury of disliking and protesting the way in which the United States dealt with Iraq or with this or that aspect of the foreign policy of the Bush administration, the foreign policy of the Canadian government should never be sidetracked by emotion.
A position based on presumed moral superiority does nothing to advance the interests of the Canadian people. ... It is [also] inevitably hypocritical. No state is a bastion of moral virtue. If Canada, in general, seems to pursue a more altruistic international policy than the United States, it is only because we have been shielded from the most unpleasant aspects of international affairs by the United States. This is what allowed our former foreign minister [Pierre Pettigrew] to naively assert that "we are well beyond the traditional domain of power politics as played out between states." Because we do not have the international responsibilities that accrue from superpower status, we have come to believe that we possess a more virtuous national character.
Yet we have conveniently forgotten that, even at our own level, we have often failed to live up to our rhetoric. In recent years, for instance, Canada has chosen to aggressively promote trade with states like China and Cuba, even to protect the interests of one relatively small company in Sudan, while largely pushing human-rights concerns into the background. Canada is far from being as virtuous as it pretends.
Despite the contradictions, an ideological approach has continued to serve as the basis for Canada's international policy. ...
Making every issue from Iraq, to Kyoto, to nuclear weapons, to the [International Criminal Court] a moral test of American foreign policy, and making the "Canadian way" the litmus test, has been a foolish way for Canada to conduct its international policy. This is particularly so when it is really a mixture of the ideology of national leaders and the search for domestic political gain that determines the content of Canadian international policy. This approach to international policy has been irresponsible. It has squandered limited diplomatic capital and failed to advance the real interests of the Canadian people. It is an approach that Canada can no longer afford.
Roy Rempel is a former professor of international relations at Memorial University in St. John's. Dreamland is published for the Breakout Educational Network and Queen's University School of Policy Studies by McGill-Queen's University Press.