AS the Oct. 30 Quebec referendum on secession from Canada
approaches, an increasingly concerned United States appears eager
to abandon its traditionally quietist approach toward such northern
rumblings in favor of a more overtly decisive stance.
And rightfully so: With the potential for disruptions of trade
under NAFTA, as well as the threat of massive political instability
along its longest border, Washington simply can't afford to sit
this one out.
The old political wisdom in the US State Department was to
cultivate a careful refrain, sometimes referred to as "the mantra."
Asked for America's opinion on French Quebec's aspirations for
independence, presidents and ambassadors would avoid trouble by
saying they "preferred a united Canada," but that the decision "was
one for Canadians to decide."
Trying to get State Department officials to go any further was
about as easy as squeezing a lemon for its last drop of juice.
But suddenly, policy statements that were hitherto shared with
Canadian representatives only behind closed doors are being aired
publicly. Witness the ever-prudent Warren Christopher's recent
foray into the Quebec-Canada melee.
Speaking to the media during a visit by Canada's foreign
minister, the secretary of state warned against assuming that trade
with the US would remain the same with an independent Quebec.
Common sense or rhetoric?
Common sense suggests that the current NAFTA signatories - the
US, Canada, and Mexico - would try to wrest maximum concessions
from an independent Quebec desperate to join the club. But the
Quebec debate has little to do with common sense; nationalist
campaigns rarely do.
This fight to secure a French-speaking sovereign state in the
middle of North America has more to do with Gallic emotion and
rhetoric in a land fertile with belief in a revisionist history
claiming years of victimization by English oppressors.
Those determined to say "oui" to secession seem not to notice or
not to care that the independent leaders have been hawking
arguments often untenable with each other. For example, to improve
Quebec's sagging economy, the reigning Parti Quebecois promises to
slash its $5 billion deficit and $57 billion debt, and then, in the
same breath, promises increased government spending and Soviet-like
guarantees of employment. "Vote yes and it all becomes possible,"
goes the election slogan.
In this context of blind faith and lax political scrutiny,
Quebec's premier and Parti Quebecois leader Jacques Parizeau and
his separatist ally in Ottawa, Lucien Bouchard of the Bloc
Quebecois, encountered little resistance in promising Quebec's easy
and instant entry into NAFTA. …