Out of Ideas? Models and Strategies for Canada-US Relations

By Bow, Brian | International Journal, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Out of Ideas? Models and Strategies for Canada-US Relations


Bow, Brian, International Journal


Over the last few years, there has been a growing consensus that Canada has a "US problem." Something needs to be done to improve the overall tone of the bilateral relationship, and to try to increase Canada's influence over policy outcomes in the United States, in order to avoid calamities like restrictive border security policies or protectionist attacks on beef or lumber. There are apparently a few out there who think that the problem was solved by the Liberals' defeat in January, but most seem to agree that the problem is more deeply rooted than that, and requires some kind of larger rethinking of the way that Canada engages with the United States. That's where agreement ends, and the argument begins.

Though it hasn't made much of an impact on the general public in Canada (and none at all in the US), there has been an impressively weighty debate on the question of how Canada can best influence US priorities and policies, featuring some brutally candid reflections on Canadian interests and values, some deep thinking about the underlying mechanics of the bilateral relationship, and even some surprising reversals by major players. There are, however, at least three reasons to be troubled by the way the debate has gone so far.

First, the battle lines are still very "messy," and the debate has not yet been framed in a way that is accessible to the general public. The most common way of sorting things out-separating those who want to put together a "big deal" from those who want to take things one issue at a time-highlights one major cleavage but conceals many others. In fact, some of the more prominent proposals about how to advance the Canadian agenda actually involve several arguments folded together, and many of the participants in the debate seem unclear about exactly where they agree and disagree with their rivals. My main purpose here is therefore to try to recast the debate within a relatively simple typological framework, based on four different models of how the American political system works. Each of these four models points to a specific political "pathway" for influencing policy outcomes in the US, and may also entail answers to other pivotal strategic questions, such as whether to make diplomatic linkages between issues, and when and how Canada should pursue further economic or political integration.

Second, the debate so far seems to lead us to a dead end. Each of the four types of "pathway" strategies I describe here has been severely undercut by its opponents, and at least some of the main proponents of each type have explicitly recognized that their favoured approach is inadequate by itself and/or cannot actually be pursued effectively at this time. What that means is until there are major changes in the US political environment, or someone comes up with an entirely new way of thinking about the bilateral relationship, we are left with trying to cobble together some kind of hybrid approach that would involve switching back and forth between different pathways, depending on the nature of the issue in play and the transnational political configuration of the moment. Just about everyone involved in the debate seems to agree that this is what Canada must do, either for a little while or for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, there has so far been very little attention to the question of when and how this switching back and forth would actually work. I will therefore offer some preliminary thoughts on how to think about the larger arrangement of Canadian issues within the United States, and what that might tell us about how to make choices between different diplomatic pathways.

That brings up the third reason to be unhappy with the debate as it has played out so far: each of the various iterations of the debate-including the current one, which is now nearly five years old-has been based almost entirely on hunches, impressions, and the occasional free-floating anecdote, with little or no hard evidence to support many of the most pivotal assessments and recommendations. …

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