Transatlantic Relations and Canadian Foreign Policy

By Long, David | International Journal, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Transatlantic Relations and Canadian Foreign Policy


Long, David, International Journal


IN A RECENT PAPER, ROBERT KAGAN(1) argued that the current transatlantic drift can be attributed to the fact that Americans and Europeans see the world in fundamentally different ways. Kagan suggests that Europeans are from Venus and Americans from Mars; the point being that Europeans tend to look for peaceful settlement, processes of accommodation and compromise, while Americans are goal oriented and much more likely to resort to the use of force in the pursuit of those goals.(2) He further claims that attitudinal differences between the US and Europe are not simply the product of cultural factors and states of mind, but rather are a response to the surfeit of power and influence in the US and the relative weakness of the states of the European Union. The point is, then, that the EU is accommodating because it has to be, and the US more assertive because it can be.

Kagan's paper has had the impact it has had because of the current context of transatlantic relations. While overdrawn and exaggerated, Kagan's caricature hit a nerve both in the US and, more importantly, in Europe, and seems to have gained extra points given the seriousness of the disputes within NATO regarding the Iraq War.(3) If there is agreement that there is a crisis in transatlantic relations, there is disagreement among IR scholars as to its cause. Kagan points to differences of world views regarding power and attitudes to its use. Meanwhile, Europeans are fond of blaming the current US administration, and there is a kernel of truth to this, at least insofar as American foreign policy has appeared quite (consistently) unilateralist of late. Not so long ago, however, John Mearsheimer(4) claimed that we would long for the days of the Cold War because of the certainties and the alignments that it gave us. Structural realist theory, starkly presented by Mearsheimer, predicts that alliances like NATO will disintegrate in the absence of their raison d'etre, the threat from the Soviet Union. Such predictions depend on an assumption regarding the key purpose of an organization like NATO. Canadians, in particular, might want to point to the transatlantic identity aspect of NATO. The territorial defence of western Europe was poured into the mould of this identity in the dire emergency of the growing chill in east-west relations after the end of the Second World War. Another theoretical framework suggests that NATO might persist because of the value of the functions it fulfills as an organization, rather than as a single purpose defensive alliance. This institutionalist view states that organizations are valued by their members for creating certainty in international relations and because organizations are harder and more costly to create than to maintain (politically, at any rate). As a result, this approach suggests we should expect that NATO will persist long past its sell-by date (that is, the end of the Cold War, the end of the Soviet Union or the end of a meaningful Russian military threat). So long as members find it useful, an organization will continue to survive.(5)

Unfortunately, every theoretical approach (even the reputedly optimistic constructivists) seems to indicate that transatlantic relations are in trouble. This is because the bond that has kept transatlantic relations has loosened. And this is true whether the bond was thought to be based on security, utility or identity. NATO is now useful rather than necessary. And the centrality of European security has been transcended by 9/11, which has set a new global security agenda, and by the (near) completion of the project of enlargement. What does this mean for Canada and what should Canadian foreign policy look like with respect to transatlantic relations? If we return briefly to Kagan's metaphors, Canadians might ask whether we are Martians or Venusians. Some observers appear to want us to be American and hope that Canada will adopt, in Kagan's terms, a Martian approach to international affairs. …

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