Collaborative Independence: Canadian-American Relations in Afghanistan

Article excerpt

The stereotyped assumption that Canada is losing its identity and being inexorably absorbed needs re-examination in the light of a better grasp of history.

John Holmes(1)

GIVEN THEIR COUNTRY'S RELATIVELY MEAGRE population and geographical position along side the world's most powerful state, it is understandable that Canadians seem to be endlessly concerned about their future as a sovereign people. Situations that demand international military co-operation, such as the current one in Afghanistan, tend, justifiably, to magnify these fears and provoke resentment of most, if not all, things American. The recent proposal for a joint military command structure for North America has elicited strong rebukes from a number of notable Canadians. In an article in the Globe and Mail, Paul Hellyer, a former minister of national defence, wrote: 'So when Defence Minister Art Eggleton says that we would not be giving up one ounce of sovereignty by turning over our troops to an "Americas Command," he takes the prize for naivete. What is proposed here is nothing less than the biggest surrender of sovereignty since Canada gained its independence from Britain.'(2) In a similar vein, Lloyd Axworthy, a former minister of foreign affairs, predicted: 'The more we tie ourselves to U.S. military decision-making, the more we will inevitably compromise the ability of the Canadian government to pursue approaches that reflect our distinctive views of the world and Canada's role in it.'(3)

These arguments may be convincing on the surface, but history suggests that they should be questioned. Admittedly, it would be foolish to claim that the situations in Korea in 1950 and in Afghanistan today are entirely analogous, The Korean War took place at a time when the United States was constrained by the bipolar structure of the cold war. Since then, the Soviet Union has been replaced by the more obscure, although to many equally threatening, concept of international terrorism. In Canada, critics will be quick to point out that contemporary foreign policy privileges international economic relations and cross-border arrangements over North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) commitments and global military obligations.(4) Nevertheless, there are more than sufficient parallels between the events of 1950 and those of 2001 to justify a brief comparison. Moreover, if history does indeed repeat itself, then one might conclude that Canada's contribution to Afghanistan - under American command - will actually enhance its independence from the United States and add to the country's ability to promote 'its distinctive views of the world and Canada's role in it' on the international stage. The most optimistic might go so far as to say that this is already happening.

When the (communist) People's Republic of North Korea invaded South Korea on 25 June 1950, the United States responded through the United Nations Security Council. A Soviet boycott there (because America had refused to recognize Mao Tse Tung's victory in the Chinese civil war) meant that there was no state present and willing to veto a resolution calling on the United Nations to participate in the armed protection of the democratic South. Already in the process of doubling its defence budget, the United States was charged with the mobilization of an international force.

Throughout the war, Canada promoted itself as an independent international go-between. This policy served to counter its image as an American protectorate, to limit the aggressiveness of the United States in Korea and the surrounding area, and to enhance Canada's status on the international stage. The secretary of state for external affairs, Lester Pearson, clarified the independent Canadian role in a letter to Prime Minister Louis St Laurent: 'We have made it abundantly clear in Washington that if Canada is to help, it must be help to the United Nations, fulfilling our obligations under the Charter, and not help to the United States. …