Strains between governments at the top, hands across the border at the base: the role of subnational governments during the Bush-Chretien era and beyond.

AuthorLubin, Martin

    Although personal relationships between U.S. Presidents and Canadian prime ministers have often been cordial [e.g. Clinton-Chretien, Carter-Trudeau, G.H. Bush-Mulroney] and positively affected at least the atmosphere and tone if not always the substance of Canada--U.S. relations, at other times these personal relations at the top have been acrimonious [e.g. Nixon-Trudeau, Reagan-Trudeau]. (1) Especially since the U.S. decision to go to war with Iraq, such has been the case between President Bush and Prime Minister Chretien. (2)

    The relationship between them began badly when Raymond Chretien, the prime minister's nephew who in the presidential election year 2000 was Canada's ambassador in Washington, publicly suggested that Ottawa favored the candidacy of A1Gore. Relations between the two leaders were patched up to a degree due to President Bush's supportive performance at the Spring, 2001, Summit of the Americas which Canada hosted in Quebec City. But subsequently, things took a turn for the worse over a host of trade issues like grain, steel, and softwood lumber where the Bush Administration was seen to be playing petty parochial politics at the expense of Canadian jobs. The June, 2002, G-8 Summit in Alberta was also seen as undermining Chretien. When the prime minister proposed a comprehensive plan to aid Africa which was supposed to be an important part of Chretien's legacy as world statesman, that image was undermined when Bush insisted on linkage between economic aid and democratic reform. The contrasts between the "little guy from Shawinigan" and George W. Bush's relative lack of political and diplomatic experience, little if any knowledge of Canada, and hardly any travel beyond the borders of the United States prior to his controversial election as president could not have been starker. Having gotten along very well with small-town-Arkansas-boy-made-good moderate "liberal" Democrat Bill Clinton for the first seven years of his tenure as prime minister, it was perhaps inevitable that Chretien, whose humble origins echo Clinton's, would not relate very well to the conservative Republican crowd around Bush.

    This paper contends that the foundations of the Canada--U.S. relationship are resilient enough to survive the current stresses and strains between Ottawa and Washington over Iraq. Canada's preference for multilateralism, soft power in defense of human security and human rights, global economic and environmental justice, (3) along with the normal array of bilateral irritants ranging from wheat and cattle to acid rain will also survive. Policy differences between the two governments are currently taking place against a backdrop of mutual suspicion and disaffection at the summit between President Bush and Prime Minister Chretien. Among the interrelated factors which allow integrative tendencies in Canada--U.S. relations to continue to widen and intensify in spite of (as well as simultaneously with) current differences at the top are: globalization (4) and "glocalization;" (5) the de facto internationalization of functions and activities of subnational governments; and, most important of all, the enduring commonality or complementarity of a host of cross-border local and regional interests in a host of specific policy domains. Current post-9/11 Canadian and U.S. central and subnational governmental (6) efforts to obtain a border which is both impervious to terrorist penetration and yet open to maintaining the largest bilateral trade relationship in the world--a "smart" and "trade efficient" border, a secure yet open border--illustrate these themes.

    The border between Canada and the United States is extremely porous and transparent. Not an entirely new development, the emergence of an increasingly permeable border was more the result of political will in response to economic, cultural, and ecological forces than of the brute facts of geography alone. This pattern unfolded in the period between the adoption by the "mother of all Parliaments" of the Quebec Act in 1774 and the Statute of Westminster in 1931, even as British North America was being transformed into two distinctive and presumably indivisible and univocal sovereign entities. Since that time, a bewildering variety of ties have continued to multiply among Canadian and U.S. inhabitants in all walks of life.

    At the same time, cross-border transactions have come to implicate governments at the local and state/provincial as well as at the federal levels with much greater frequency than in the past, notwithstanding the considerable formal plenary powers to conduct international relations allocated by both of these federal constitutional regimes to Washington and Ottawa respectively. (7) That is to say, the growth in inter-sovereign linkages between the two contiguous federal systems stems from the continued increase in private economic, cultural, environmental, social and transnational interactions. Despite possible objections on traditional federal distribution of powers grounds, effective management of the sheer volume and complexity of these interdependencies has noticeably enhanced opportunities for the participation of governments at all levels. (8) Between and within each of these two neighboring North American Federal regimes, the central and subnational governmental units collaborate when complementary (9) and common interests converge; (49) however, those very same governmental units compete amongst themselves when conflicting interests diverge. (10) External and internal streams perforate but do not eliminate intersovereign barriers between states. Consequently, it seems useful to qualify and refine the traditional notion of one state speaking to another with a single univocal (12) legitimate voice.


    The bilateral relationship between Canada and the United States is an asymmetric one. As a result, whenever North American cross-border policy agenda spillovers occur, they are usually from the more powerful United States to Canada rather than the reverse. The widespread awareness in Canada of unequal power relationships between the two countries not infrequently contributes to reactive policy responses in Canada to common environmental shocks (crises) at variance with those in the United States. Canada's political elite intermittently justifies such policy divergence on the grounds of forging and maintaining a distinctive national identity vis-a-vis its more powerful neighbor to the south.

    Because it is sometimes politically profitable and convenient to do so, Canadian politicians will adopt policies in specific issue-areas which run counter to those in the United States in order to compensate for perceived loss of Canadian autonomy in any number of other policy domains. Nevertheless, as asymmetric Canada--U.S. economic integration cum policy convergence proceeds post-NAFTA, Canadian reactive policy responses leading to policy divergence will continue unabated and perhaps intensify even while Canada feels compelled to embrace continentalist imperatives in many fields. Canada is small but not powerless vis-a-vis even the United States. Trajectories of policy convergence in some spheres occur simultaneously with paths of Canada--U.S. policy divergence in other domains. (13)

    Yet, the on-going, incomplete process of Canada--U.S. integration (14) suggests the existence of a common northern North American policymaking environment within which public policies in the two neighboring sovereign polities are formulated, evaluated, and implemented. Here are two contiguous states, advanced industrial democracies, engaged in adapting to similar environmental disturbances in the international system, albeit often at different rates, times, and substances. Thus, Canadian policy sometimes imitates and at other times reacts against U.S. policy. Depending upon the specific issue, common problems perceived in the same way, irrespective of such important differences as relative power, institutional frameworks and political culture, should not infrequently give rise to similar public policy responses to common environmental shocks.

    Canada is both a victim and beneficiary of its multitude of economic, cultural, and social interdependencies with the United States. Cross-border diffusion of ideas, technologies, capital, business structure, cultural commodities and the like reinforces the notion that the two societies are more similar than dissimilar from one another. The 5,000+ miles international boundary not only separates and divides but also links and unites these two neighboring sovereign federal states. Over the border flow people, pollution, and ideas as well as products; the border is permeable and acts more like a sieve than an impenetrable shield.

    What, then, is the relationship between the external forces of international economic integration on the one hand, and domestic policy choices open to government decision-makers in Canada on the other? Prematurely pessimistic nationalists as well as continentalists, enthusiastically preaching the necessity of Canada inevitably bowing before the irreversible logic of more integration, exaggerate the consequences of closer Canada--U.S. economic links. As George Hoberg puts it, Canada has had and, in fact, continues to retain "the capacity to choose." (15) The consequences of continental integration have not been as grave and far-reaching as many people on both sides of the nationalist/continentalist divide in Canada believe them to be. While Canada, in order to acquire and defend access to larger markets, has had to abandon certain domestic protectionist policy instruments (and, yes, policy harmonization has indeed increased) nevertheless Ottawa still maintains a significant margin of maneuver, even in policy spheres directly impacted by North American economic integration.

    On September 11, 2001, terrorists...

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