The Conundrum of Canadian-American Relations

By McKenzie, Francine | International Journal, March 2014 | Go to article overview

The Conundrum of Canadian-American Relations


McKenzie, Francine, International Journal


When Denis Stairs published his monograph, The Diplomacy of Constraint: Canada, the Korean War, and the United States, in 1974, he was examining a conflict that had erupted some twenty years earlier, in the early years of the Cold War.1 His main aim was to explore the Canada-US relationship at a time of heightened anti-American sentiment in Canada. Since government records were not yet accessible, he relied on interviews and newspaper accounts. Forty years later, there is a well-developed international literature on the Korean War. We have a better understanding of the Cold War dimension of, and the intra-state drivers behind, the conflict. Government and international records are now open, making it possible to follow the Canadian policymaking process closely. The Cold War is over; and while anti-Americanism is far from banished, relations between Canada and the United States are thoroughly integrated through free trade agreements and enhanced continental security post 9/11. So why might someone be tempted to dust off The Diplomacy of Constraint and read it now?

If it were only a narrow or specialized study, one might not bother. But it is more than that. The central conundrum of Canadian foreign policy in the 1950s, the period Stairs wrote about, was still the central conundrum of Canadian foreign policy in the 1970s, when Stairs was writing The Diplomacy of Constraint, and it remains a conundrum to this day. How can Canadian-American relations remain largely cooperative and constructive while Canadian officials try to constrain US policy that they consider to have become excessive, dangerous, or misguided? This conundrum has an enduring relevance to the main subject of study in Canadian diplomatic history-Canada's relations with its southern neighbour. The relationship has been analyzed according to prime minister, approach, theme, topic (such as economic integration, defence, or culture), and context (continental, hemispheric, global). The essence of the relationship has been characterized in subtly different ways-unavoidable partners, tolerant allies, even ambivalent allies-that, like Stairs' characterization, convey an inherent tension. Some of the ways in which Stairs explained these tensions and made sense of Canadian foreign policy priorities continue to be relevant, although not everyone will agree on their policy implications. For instance, he portrayed the government of Canada as having no real choice but to give relations with the US the highest priority; he pointed out that although American and Canadian world views were generally compatible, they were not identical; he suggested that by working through multilateral forums, especially the UN, Canada would be better able to influence US foreign policy; and he argued that quiet approaches, especially when a critical message was being communicated, were preferable to open opposition. It is no surprise that Stairs' nuanced treatment of Canadian-American relations, which, as then secretary of state for external affairs, Lester Pearson, explained in 1951, are not always easy or automatic, continues to be consulted.

Stairs' account follows Canadian policymakers from their involvement in postSecond World War plans to hold free elections and unify North and South Korea, through to the Korean War (1950 to 1953) and the 1954 Geneva conference. Throughout, he explains why and how Canadian officials sought to constrain American foreign policy by working with like-minded countries in the United Nations and the British Commonwealth. The study begins in the immediate postwar years, when the Cold War was defining the postwar order. Stairs examines the reaction of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, then nearing the end of a long career, to US government requests that Canada participate in a United Nations commission (the United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea, or UNTCOK) to oversee elections in Korea. King paid scant attention to the enormously complicated challenge of unifying Korea and establishing a legitimate indigenous government. …

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