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A Glimpse at Canada'’s Place in Obama'’s World

Christopher Sands

On May 27, the Obama administration released its first National Security Strategy, a public document that every U.S. administration is required to produce every four years by Congress—it is a statutory requirement under section 108 of the National Security Act of 1947, as amended (50 U.S.C. 404a).

The purpose of the document is to provide an outline of how the United States government sees the threats and opportunities confronting U.S. interests in a dangerous world in a public way, so that citizens can join a democratic debate about U.S. national security policy (and, not coincidentally, generate public pressure that can strengthen Congress in U.S. foreign policymaking).

Here is the sum total of the document’s explicit mentions of Canada (pages 42-43):

North America: The strategic partnerships and unique relationships we maintain with Canada and Mexico are critical to U.S. national security and have a direct effect on the security of our homeland. With billions of dollars in trade, shared critical infrastructure, and millions of our citizens moving across our common borders, no two countries are more directly connected to our daily lives. We must change the way we think about our shared borders, in order to secure and expedite the lawful and legitimate flow of people and goods while interdicting transnational threat that threaten our open societies.

Canada is our closest trading partner, a steadfast security ally, and an important partner in regional and global efforts. Our mutual prosperity is closely interconnected, including through our trade relationship with Mexico through NAFTA. With Canada, our security cooperation includes our defense of North America and our efforts through NATO overseas. And our cooperation is critical to the success of international efforts on issues ranging from international climate negotiations to economic cooperation through the G-20.

With Mexico, in addition to trade cooperation, we are working together to identify and interdict threats at the earliest opportunity, even before they reach North America. Stability and security in Mexico are indispensable to building a strong economic partnership, fighting the illicit drug and arms trade, and promoting sound immigration policy.

In addition to the above section, Canada is also addressed (without being named) as part of the discussion of NATO (which is part of a section on European allies, and part of the section on Afghanistan and Pakistan) and the G-8 and G-20.

Reading the Obama administration’s framing of Canada in the context of U.S. global interests and relationships, a few things stand out.

First, the Obama administration gives about the same weight (and space) to Canada as the George W. Bush administration did. Canadian energy, which rated attention for Bush, is not emphasized here. The Obama team offers to “rethink” border security approaches, rather than toughening border security, which holds out the hope of at least a dialogue on easing border barriers to legitimate flows of people and goods.

The Obama strategy follows the Bush strategies by placing Canada firmly in the North American region, along with Mexico. Toward the end of the Bush administration, several prominent Canadians called for a re-emphasis on bilateral dialogue with the United States, with trilateral conversations including Mexico continuing on an “as needed” basis. The Obama administration’s response here is to continue to emphasize North American diplomacy.

At the same time, the 2010 U.S. National Security Strategy’s language on U.S. cooperation on security and prosperity with Canada and Mexico is not very specific. In the second of the George W. Bush administrations’ National Security Strategy documents (issued in 2006) the rhetoric of cooperation was translated into action in the form of the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America, or SPP. The elaborate SPP process—it had twenty trilateral working groups, regular ministerial steering committee meetings, reports to the leaders and annual North American leaders’ summits—was dropped at the 2009 North American leaders’ meeting in Guadalajara in favour of a simpler, bureaucratically-driven and top-down led model of results-oriented, limited cooperation in a handful of priority areas.

Of the old SPP structure, only the annual leaders’ meetings remain and it is Canada’s turn to host in 2010. Amidst the preparations for the upcoming G-8 summit in Huntsville, Ontario and the subsequent G-20 meetings in Toronto, it is striking that the date and location for a 2010 North American leaders’ meeting have not been announced.

It remains unclear when the three leaders will meet to address regional issues and follow-up on the agenda they agreed to in Guadalajara. If the North American leaders’ meeting in 2010 is reduced to a press conference on the side of the G-8 or G-20 meetings later this month, it will confirm the vague approach to North American cooperation in the 2010 U.S. National Security Strategy as a down-grade of the level of formal intra-regional diplomacy from the previous administration’s SPP benchmark.

Unlike past national security strategy documents, the 2010 edition has a lengthy section on the U.S. economy, entitled “Advancing Our Interests: Prosperity” (pages 28-34). There are references to international markets, competitiveness, and innovation here—but no recognition of the continental linkages that bind the economies of the United States, Canada, and Mexico so tightly together that the competitiveness and prosperity of each is interdependent on the others.

President Obama is clearly more comfortable with domestic policy that foreign policy, but there is a need to overcome a false dichotomy between domestic and international issues and policies that many of us encounter—a split we see in college courses, news media, and elite commentary. One way to begin to integrate U.S. strategic thinking about the global economy would be to acknowledge the significant economic interdependence of the United States and its immediate neighbours. For a document that reflects the intellectual framing of U.S. interests by the administration, Canada’s absence from the economic portion of the strategy is a disappointing lacuna.

The new U.S. National Security Strategy also devotes attention to the promotion of U.S. values in a section that echoes former Canadian foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy’s claims on behalf of Canada to “moral superpower” status. The Obama administration, too, hopes that U.S. soft power can grow into a central instrument of U.S. strategy. Democracy, development, human rights are all important priorities and it is good to promote these in pursuit of a better world. Canadian readers of this section of the 2010 U.S. National Security Strategy will certainly feel that they’ve heard all of this before, of course. The point is not that it is bad for any government to aim to promote certain values, but that both Canada and the United States share these values and it is a pity that neither has recognized that their strategies ought to promote doing so cooperatively.

To summarize, the 2010 U.S. National Security Strategy addresses the importance of Canada to U.S. national security and vital national interests only in the context of the North American region, and linked to U.S. relations with Mexico. This is not how many Canadians would prefer to be viewed. In other multilateral bodies and alliances, Canada’s presence is implicit and unmentioned; this clearly contributes to an underestimation of Canada’s potential to aid the United States as a friend and ally around the world.

And most significantly, in a U.S. National Security Strategy document that goes farther than any previous one to place domestic economic challenges in a global context, Canada is not seen as part of a shared continental economy with the United States. The new strategy fails to grasp Canada’s role as a major foreign investor, the largest U.S. export market, intimately linked to the U.S. economy by complex cross-border supply chains that make American and Canadians co-workers rather than mere trading partners. This is more than an oversight – it is a failure to accurately perceive U.S. economic interests in their totality.

It is possible to make too much of a public relations document like the U.S. National Security Strategy. But since its purpose is to engage the public in a debate about foreign policy, Canadians might well take from the Obama administration’s latest effort a broad indication of what U.S. officials are thinking about Canada—and what they have missed. A better U.S. strategy for the future would take into account how the fate of Canada influences the fate of the U.S. economy and our national economic interests.

Perhaps Canadian national security strategy should begin by trying to change American thinking for the better.

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