Academic journal article American Review of Canadian Studies

"Without Regard to the Interests of Others": Canada and American Unilateralism in the Post-Cold War Era

Academic journal article American Review of Canadian Studies

"Without Regard to the Interests of Others": Canada and American Unilateralism in the Post-Cold War Era

Article excerpt


In October 1993, the election of a Liberal government was seen by many as the harbinger of a souring in Canadian-American relations. After all, the new prime minister, Jean Chretien, had explicitly rejected the essential pro-Americanism of his Progressive Conservative predecessor, Brian Mulroney, which was described disparagingly as a "camp-follower approach"; the Liberal party was on record as favoring the rejection of the North American Free Trade Agreement unless it could be renegotiated; and at least two members of the Liberal front bench then being touted for key roles in Chretien's cabinet--Sheila Copps and Lloyd Axworthy, the Liberal foreign policy critic--had well-established records of anti-American sentiment. (1)

As Joseph T. Jockel has noted, however, the anticipated downturn in relations did not occur. Instead, in the first two years of the government's mandate, there was a "persistent calm" in the Canada-U.S. relationship, marked by the absence of major disputes between the two countries and the lack of evidence of deep-seated differences between Jean Chretien and President Bill Clinton. (2) Jockel suggests that one explanation for the calm was that the new government in Ottawa wanted to concentrate on the Quebec issue and the economy, a reflection of what he describes as Chretien's general cautiousness on both domestic and foreign policy matters. (3) It might also have been a function of a more careful reading of the mood of the Canadian public in the mid-1990s. According to J.L. Granatstein, anti-Americanism was at a weak point in Canada at the time, (4) and it might have been that Chretien sensed that, while Canadians might have been uncomfortable with Mulroney's closeness to American presidents, there was little desire to see their government pursue an overtly anti-American policy.

Finally, the calm may have been a result of personnel choices by Chretien: both Axworthy and Copps were given portfolios (human resources and environment, respectively) that did not involve them in issues then on the Canadian-American agenda. Instead, the Foreign Affairs portfolio was given to Andre Ouellet, whose experience with international affairs was slight; Axworthy would not be given Foreign Affairs until the cabinet shuffle of January 1996. Equally, Chretien's first minister for international trade was Roy MacLaren, a member of the faction of the Liberal party which favored free trade.

While Jockel was not wrong to describe the relationship as calm, that calmness nevertheless masked a mounting divergence in approach to the international system in the post-Cold War period. At issue was the willingness of both governments to attach themselves to the principles of multilateralism in international politics. (5) The Canadian government, which had a historical commitment to multilateralism, began expressing concerns about what it saw as the increasing tendency of the United States government to abandon the multilateralism that a succession of administrations had demonstrated during the Cold War. (6) Instead, the United States was seen as increasingly willing to take a unilateralist approach to some key elements of trade and diplomacy in the post-Cold War period. Unilateralism, in this context, included the willingness of the government in Washington to define the rules for itself, decide what rules it would choose to follow, and generally act, as Axworthy was to put it in 1996, "without regard to the legitimate interests of others." (7)

Canadian concerns about American unilateralism in the post-Cold War period focused on three areas: trade remedies, financing for the United Nations, and the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996, or the "Helms-Burton Act," as it is commonly called after its sponsors. In each area, the Canadian government pursued essentially the same policy: Ottawa devoted fairly sustained efforts to dampen American unilateral impulses by engaging in open and public criticism of American policy, and included a healthy dose of what can best be described as preaching the virtues of multilateralism to the United States. …

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