Managing alternate realities: 'autonomy' vs. 'relevance'? Engaging us foreign and security policies.

AuthorHale, Geoffrey

Canadian foreign policy circles continue to debate how much the need for a cooperative relationship with the United States on issues of central importance to Canada circumscribes Canada's security and foreign policy options. A related question addresses Canadian governments' capacity to influence American foreign and social policies, whether explicitly towards Canada or more generally in their interaction with international institutions and security alliances.

Advocates of a more "independent" foreign policy sometimes argue, often on a variety of normative grounds (Clarkson 2002, Axworthy 2003, Byers 2007) that Canada should not only distance itself from US policies but challenge them when required by Canadian interests, "values", or goals of a norms-based international order. Supporters of closer policy cooperation may also argue on normative grounds rooted in shared western democratic values. However, they usually contend that Canada can expand its interests and international influence by showing its ability to influence US policy choices as a trusted ally. (Granatstein 2003, Burney 2005, Rempel 2006) More nuanced analyses suggest that, particularly for smaller powers, the very concept of foreign policy "independence" is relative and contingent in a world of complex interdependence--"a rhetorical point of reference than a realistic basis of action." (Chapnick 2006: 69. Also see Hillmer, Hampson and Tomlin 2005: 10.)

Bilateral US-Canada relations are characterized by a high degree of asymmetry of relative size and power within the international system, of security commitments and capacity, and of the relative importance and attention each government attributes to the relationship--in each case irrespective of partisan or ideological orientation. Canadian policymakers and commentators pay close attention to American policy decisions and priorities. They balance competing political pressures to cooperate with or distance themselves from their giant neighbor. At the same time, US political and security relations with Canada mix benign neglect, occasional irritation, and the routine cultivation of political and administrative contacts to manage the broad range of bilateral issues that often blur distinctions between foreign and domestic policies.

The wide range of issues engaged in the course of US-Canada relations, and the diverse sectoral, domestic and international contexts which shape policy decisions on these issues, lead policy observers in both countries to note that neither the United States nor Canada has a consistent set of strategic policies towards the other. Rather, disparate sets of policies informed by the diversity and decentralization of political, economic and societal relationships characterize bilateral relations. These in turn are shaped by different mixes of domestic political considerations, bureaucratic politics reflecting competing institutional interests within each government, and the personal agendas of senior policymakers. Interviews with a cross-section of officials with varying levels of seniority in both Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAIT) and the US Department of State (DoS) conducted at intervals between November 2005 and mid-2008 have reinforced these observations.

Security relationships, whether conducted through political or military channels, tend to focus mainly on issues related to the defense of North America, given the huge disparity of resources devoted to defense by the two countries. More recently, security relations have centered on questions of "homeland" and border security. We may characterize US dealings with Canada on wider foreign and security policy questions as relatively minor variations on broader strategic or regional US "policies towards allies." These serve as part of a broader typology of American policies towards Canada suggested by Mahant and Mount (1999) that will be discussed below.

This paper examines the nature of bilateral political and security relations in the context of a wider study of Canadian efforts to influence American policies towards Canada. It begins with an overarching summary of theoretical considerations informing the study. It then identifies central areas of complementarity and asymmetry at different levels of analysis. These include macro-political, binational and bilateral institutions and processes within North America, and broader sectoral questions central to the relationship in recent years. It concludes by suggesting that the highly segmented nature of the bilateral political / security relationship currently suits both national governments by enabling "cooperation as necessary", but also, from Canada's perspective, facilitating what Stuart (2007: 215) has described as a "perpetual courtship designed to avoid the altar."


    "Every relationship the US has in the world right now is asymmetrical." Interview, US Department of State

    Political scientist Charles Doran, writing in 1984, argued that "the primary theoretical consideration in the U.S.-Canada relationship is that each government starts from different assumptions about international politics, and these assumptions in turn affect the weighting of the bargaining dimensions themselves." (Doran 1984: 37, italics added) Doran divides the study of US-Canada relations into three dimensions: political-strategic, involving broad issues of foreign policy and national security which include formal and informal systems of alliances; trade-commercial, focusing on the economic dimensions of international relations; and psychological-cultural, namely the impact of domestic political cultures, competition, and concerns on the "democratic" context for policy-making in other areas. Depending on trends in bilateral relations and the political evolution of each country, the environment could eventually become a fourth such dimension which can shape or constrain policy developments elsewhere.

    Doran's analysis of a quarter century ago remains largely true today, both despite and because of the end of the Cold War as a primary organizing context for international relations, differing responses to the political after shocks of 9/11, and the re-emergence of balance of power politics in US relations with Europe, Russia, China, and Latin America. (Kissinger 2008) Boundaries between the different dimensions of bilateral relations remain porous, just as the pressures of "intermesticity" blur traditional distinctions between domestic and international political and policy spheres. (Hale 2006)

    The political-strategic dimension is the principal preoccupation of US foreign policies as the world's preeminent political and military power. The priorities and political attention of senior US foreign policy decision makers are largely focused on the management of global and regional alliances, regional stabilization, national defense, and (where politically feasible) the promotion of stable democracies. The United States remains the "indispensable power" to any reorganization of major international institutions in response to emerging global challenges or to the resolution of conflicts in many parts of the world.

    As a result, bilateral relations with Canada are a secondary consideration of American foreign and security policies. Senior policymakers generally treat North American issues as a subset either of hemispheric diplomatic and security considerations or of relevant domestic policies in setting national priorities and organizing their diplomatic activities. (For examples, see United States 1999, 48-57; and Rice 2008.) The State Department's shift of its Canada desk from the Bureau of European Affairs to that of Hemispheric Affairs during the 1990s symbolized the shift of Canada's diplomatic standing in Washington from that of a generally supportive power within the trans-Atlantic alliance to that of a peripheral actor in US hemispheric diplomacy, although Canada's engagement in hemispheric issues is encouraged and welcomed when supportive of broader US goals. (Interview, DoS, Washington, June 2006) Similar attitudes can be seen in more thoughtful discussions of foreign policy in the 2008 Presidential campaign, when Canada is not ignored altogether. (For one example, see McCain 2008.)

    A survey of recent academic studies of US foreign and security policies reinforces this perspective. References to Canada are minimal--averaging one or two per book--and utterly peripheral to broader discussions of American policies or priorities. (1) Two exceptions to this pattern tend to reinforce this perspective. Katzenstein (2005) assesses Canadian attitudes towards the United States in the context of both US hemispheric dominance and its "deep ambivalence about supporting a more fully institutionalized regionalism that other states might use against the United States." (226) Both Canada and Mexico are seen as "too proximate to and too dependent on the United States to play the role of both supporter states and regional powers." (230) Mowle (2004) analyzes twenty case studies of negotiations between the United States and its "Atlantic allies" over security-related issues between 1995 and 2003. He suggests that the relative cohesion of European states (and Canada) is a key factor in determining whether multilateralism is to be used as a means of constraining American interests or of individual states negotiating the terms of their cooperation with American objectives. These observations are mirrored in domestic Canadian debates.

    The primacy of political-strategic issues to US policymakers is also reflected in recent editions of the Congressional Research Service's annual survey of bilateral relations with Canada. Almost two-thirds of the initial summary is typically devoted to defense and security issues, with the balance divided between economic and environmental concerns. (For example, see Ek and Fergusson...

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