The relationship between the United States and Canada is a powerfully positive one. Indeed, over the course of the 20th Century, these neighbouring nations have become progressively interconnected. Canada and the United States have fought on the same side in virtually every armed conflict since the dawn of the 20th Century, and the United States gradually superseded British influence over Canada as our nation’s former imperial overlords saw their expansive powers and territories decline, falling victim to a new era of modernity marked by the birth of new nation-states emerging from foreign rule.
Inasmuch as the United States is clearly the bigger brother of the family in terms of military might, sheer wealth, population size, and numerous other factors, Canada is clearly the more dependent of the two partners in the relationship. Consider foreign policy: few and far between are those international forays in which Canada chooses to engage and directly contradict the American national interest. Maintaining diplomatic ties with Cuba amid a longstanding American embargo and opposing the 2003 war in Iraq are two of the more notable examples where America Junior tailored its own foreign policy differently than that out its southern neighbour. A similar story exists in terms of bilateral trade: three-quarters of Canada’s exports and three-fifths of its imports are currently tied to the United States. On top of that, these two countries share the world’s largest trading relationship, which reached a peak of $650 billion in 2008, or $1.78 billion per day.
In a way, the splendid isolation afforded by the Atlantic Ocean – which puts distance between the two countries and separates them from Old World conflicts – has brought them even closer together. In today’s rapidly modernizing and globalizing world, technological adaptations may lessen this sense of relative security, but centuries of shared history on the North American continent have forged a lasting sense of mutual purpose and common destiny. Piggybacking on the policies of its superpower neighbour, Canada has sprung onto the postwar international stage to maximize its own liberty, security and prosperity. Canada has managed to do this by virtue of its status as a middle power, an idea derived from the realist paradigm of international relations theory.
Imagine every state in the international system as occupying a certain rank in the hierarchy of states. Today, the United States is the sole remaining superpower within this ranking system, following the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR. Today, other big players on the global circuit are considered “Great Powers”; countries like China and Germany have clear spheres of influence and draw their less powerful neighbours into their respective orbits. On the flipside, a Caribbean country like Haiti or Jamaica is limited in influence and capabilities, thereby falling into the “Minor Power” category. Canada, though, does not fit neatly into any of these analytical categories, and so a new one was devised to reflect that reality post-World War II.
Ever since this new moniker began being applied to the Canadian context, a debate has raged between those calling for Canada to express its independence at the expense of antagonizing the United States, and those who call for Canada to acclimatize itself to the realities of living next to a neighbour as dominant and powerful as the United States. Stephen Clarkson, one of Canada’s preeminent political scientists, takes the former approach. While acknowledging that our interests converge closely, Clarkson is adamant that “partnership requires equality, and equality implies independence.” In other words, dependence on the United States necessarily translates into inequality for Canada. Canadian military historian Jack Granatstein goes the latter route and is more direct in his policy prescriptions: “too many Canadians, their judgment warped by anti-Americanism, think that the United States is the enemy. It’s not. Canada needs the United States to be the effective manager of global security.” The obvious implication is that Canada benefits disproportionately from the American role in creating, maintaining, and strengthening the international peace and security of the world.
A recent article in Maclean’s magazine made the case that Americans are unnecessarily making the lives of Canadians worse. This argument was made in the context of increased border security following the 9/11 terror attacks, and insular economic policies in the aftermath of the 2008 financial meltdown – at a time when vocal constituencies in the American government were clamoring for increased protectionism in the face of an impending collapse and an uncertain future for the American economic system. To say that Americans are deliberately undercutting the Canadian standard of living is an unfair charge to make against the US, and too simplistic an approach to the issue.
Canada enjoys the political and economic advantages of a relationship with the United States by virtue of its mere proximity to the country. Canadians and Americans – taken together as governments and as societies – have more in common with one another than almost any other two countries on the planet. To criticize the United States for overcompensating in its security overload following the worst terrorist attack on American soil, or its protectionist tendencies in the face of a looming crisis – both cases in which the United States had the best of intentions – is to unjustifiably distort and overlook the natural advantages that Canada enjoys as America’s neighbour. If Canada had to choose any country in the world to live beside, it could hardly do better than to choose this one.