Canada's National Interest Ten Years After 9-11

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Appeared in Embassy

The change to world affairs and Canadian foreign policy that began with the horrific attacks of 9-11 was as a big as the onset of the Cold War, only it happened more quickly and with less forewarning. Both America’s role in the world and its identity at home went through a full makeover. Canadians have been affected by the terrorist attacks and by changes to American policy at all levels; in our foreign and defence policy and in our economic and domestic security affairs.

At first it was difficult even for Canadians to gauge the full impact of the American reaction, but what President George W. Bush set in motion has been in character with the tradition of American foreign policy. Obama’s adjustments have been sensible and the next president will make his or her own changes, but the American-led fight against Islamist expansionism will continue for a long time.

In his famous address to Congress on March 12, 1947, Harry Truman spoke of the threat of “terrorist activities” and “aggressive movements that seek to impose totalitarian regimes.” For Truman, a global ideology was on the march united in its hostility to America and liberal democracy. Equally convinced was George W. Bush in his address to Congress on September 20, 2001, that a lethal mix of totalitarianism and Islamism had presented itself with no other goal than “remaking the world and imposing its radical beliefs on people everywhere.” Both men were essentially right, though their subsequent actions did not always help the liberal democratic cause.

Canada has participated in the fight against extremism distinctively in Afghanistan since 2002, just as it did in Korea in the early 1950s, while avoiding Iraq in 2003, as it stayed aloof from Vietnam in the 1960s. Precisely in tune with the cautious tone of the Obama administration, Canada is playing a useful role in the NATO action in Libya.

But the post-September 11 world has affected Canada even more in its bilateral relations. From 1776 until the 1930s, Canada enjoyed a dominant strategic, military and economic relationship with Great Britain. Since then, our political, geographic and economic interests have come home to North America. Now they have come home in an even more direct manner.

During the Cold War, the danger and threat was in the form of airplanes and missiles coming from outside of North America. After 9-11, the terrorist threat comes from phony visas, explosives in a van or one guy with a bomb in a backpack. A 5500 km border (much of it water) has no traditional match for such a threat. Much worse than Pearl Harbour, 9-11 has caused a siege mentality among Americans. They are building walls and fences and Canada is on the outside. This is a grave threat to our security and prosperity. The Department of Homeland Security is a misnomer: Canada is part of the homeland.

Current and future Canadian governments are faced with the sobering task of convincing Americans that a continental security perimeter as well as deep economic and security integration is the only solution to security and global competitiveness for both countries. Moreover, both Canada and the United States must put economic and democratic development in Mexico at a much higher level of priority to bring the final North American partner in. Free trade is not enough. NAFTA’s logic was built on an integrating supply chain in manufacturing. How can we stay competitive in global economies of scale? By harmonizing security and production regulations, by allowing labour and expertise to move around more flexibly, by streamlining regulations on natural resources, and by completely overhauling low-efficiency barriers such as our conventional border.

At the same time, Canadian governments will need to convince Canadians that this development does not mean the end of Canada. Markets, finances, information and security are all globalizing. Many countries, including Canada, need to realize that they will share more policy space with relevant others. We are confident and strong enough to do so. The United States is our most relevant other, followed by Mexico.

America is currently in a deep funk. It is a type of post-Vietnam blues set off by a combination of overreaching in Iraq in 2003 and the rise of new economic powers, with China in the vanguard. While the United States struggled in the 1970s and 1980s, it seemed that the Europeans and Japan were steaming ahead. Similarly, as the Americans struggle today to find political ground to renew their fiscal and economic framework, Chinese and others are steaming ahead.

Sensible policy makers in Ottawa will neither panic at America’s struggles nor be tempted into radical departures in Canadian foreign policy just because America is weak at the moment. Canada was never part of Europe and will never be part of Asia.

Canadian foreign policy pursues its goals best while being sensible to America’s strengths and weaknesses. Canada can best advance its interests in the world by strengthening the relative position of North America as a whole.

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