Canada-United States Relations: Options for the 1970s

By Bothwell, Robert | International Journal, December 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Canada-United States Relations: Options for the 1970s

Bothwell, Robert, International Journal

FOR THE GOVERNMENT OF PIERRE ELLIOTT TRUDEAU in the 1970s, no foreign policy issue was more important, or more elusive, than relations with the United States. Previous governments had tried to tackle that thorny relationship, most recently in the Merchant-Heeney Report of 1965 (named for the two diplomats who wrote it), which stimulated more heat than light when it suggested that 'quiet diplomacy' was the best way to deal with differences between the two. Prudently, Trudeau's white paper, Foreign Policy for Canadians, did not deal systematically with relations with the United States, and Mitchell Sharp, his secretary of state for external affairs, was left to explain weakly that the United States was so omnipresent in the study that a separate treatment was unnecessary.

Canadian politicians liked to talk of Canadian-American relations as if they were shaped by Canada alone. The reverse was more often the case, although American initiatives were as often as not unconscious. For example, in the mid-1960s Congress set out to amend long-standing injustices in American immigration law. The revised act ended discrimination against whole areas and, therefore, whole races.(1) A side-effect, largely unnoticed in Canada, was that free admission of Canadians (among other North and South Americans) to the United States came to an end. Free passage of emigrants, which predated confederation, suddenly vanished, and Canada for the foreseeable future would be treated just like any other foreign country.

Trudeau was less influenced by the United States, its politics or its values, than any other twentieth-century Canadian prime minister. Attempts to get him to pay attention to contemporary American phenomena, like sport, failed. 'The only American media he bothered following was American movies,' his campaign manager once lamented.(2) (And movie stars: Trudeau did date Barbra Streisand, among others.) In any case, he was not unduly worried about American influence. The United States was a great power, and great powers had their interests, including the security of their neighbourhood. Canada was necessarily affected; that was a fact of life. Americans might have been reassured by the fact that he did not see the United States as especially malignant - except that he extended the same consideration to the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was a great power like the United States, and, like the United States, it believed that its sphere of influence guaranteed its own security. That explained, though it did not entirely excuse, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. It also explained the West's almost purely symbolic response. The strictly limited reaction of the West in effect recognized that what the Soviet Union did behind the Iron Curtain was primarily its own affair.

Trudeau visited the Soviet Union in the spring of 1971. There was little of substance on the Canadian-Russian agenda to make the visit memorable. Certain remarks by Trudeau, however, were memorable, especially his public discussion of the 'overwhelming presence' of the United States in Canadian life. American diplomats winced. So, too, did Canada's ambassador to Moscow, Robert Ford, for whom Trudeau's statement and his choice of words were revealing: 'I am... certain that it was a psychological lapse, since it reflected a deep-seated distrust of the United States and a friendly feeling toward the Soviet Union on the part of the prime minister.'(3)

The American reaction was carefully hidden, occasionally mistrustful, and usually nuanced. President Richard Nixon reacted with irritation. His national security adviser and foreign policy guru, Henry Kissinger, an ex-Harvard professor, was shrewder. Canada, he believed, acted in counterpoint to the United States. 'We are so powerful,' he argued in 1974: 'whatever identity they have, they get in opposition to us.' As for Trudeau, Kissinger considered him 'intelligent, foppish and a momma's boy.' It was not a bad impression as far as it went, though later Kissinger would gild it for his memoirs. …

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