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Myths and Superstitions

Christopher Sands

What is more dangerous at this stage of the U.S.-Canada relationship: superstitions, or myths? Both inflict the popular imagination about this relationship, and more so in Canada than in the United States simply because Americans think about the relationship less often. Superstitions have led us to distrust one another’s statements, actions and intentions. Yet myths have driven expectations to diverge from reality, setting our diplomacy up for failure and disappointment.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan famously admonished us to “Trust, but verify.” This would be sufficient to dispel many of the superstitions the Americans and Canadians hold about one another, as outlined in Brian Lee Crowley’s excellent MLI Commentary Trading in Superstitions. While many Americans suspect Canada is less vigilant in its security efforts, and that the Canadian government and public take the threat of terrorism less seriously than the threat warrants, a close examination of Canada’ security measures will establish Canadian bona fides in this regard. And while many Canadians suspect the United States is, in Crowley’s words, “a bully that takes its largest trading partner for granted [and] does not play by the rules under our shared institutions…” this too is easily refuted by a casual consideration of the facts.

What renders such superstitions mostly harmless to the health of the bilateral relationship is their flimsy basis in reality, as well as the way in which they motivate each side: Americans are motivated by their fears to pay closer attention to Canada, and Canadians are motivated by their prejudices to work hard to improve upon the framework of rules and agreements, formal and informal institutions by which relations are managed.

Myths, on the other hand, have some basis in reality but are harder to dispel because they become articles of faith for those who cling to them. Facts rarely make any difference, as true believers contest them and make relativistic claims about truth to avoid a challenge to their comfortable preconceptions.

This was evident in the February 4 meeting between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, where the two leaders issued the Washington Declarations on U.S.-Canadian border security and regulatory cooperation, each of which establishes a federal-level working group to pursuer opportunities to improve security and economic competitiveness.

In a new Hudson Institute paper, I review the contents of the declarations and their potential impact in some detail; briefly, the main conclusions point to troublesome myths that have gained currency in bilateral relations:

Myth: That Canada is negotiating a new perimeter accord with the United States, and since the United States wants this badly, Canada is in an excellent bargaining position. Facts to consider: There is a de facto perimeter in place today, and the Harper government is hoping to exchange cooperation on entry-exit records to make up for the damage done to Canadian interests when the ChrĂ©tien government recoiled at the Bush administration’s offer of a perimeter strategy in 2001. When Canada said no to the perimeter approach in 2001, it forced the United States to invest billions of dollars in upgrading neglected border defenses, and these became the inner ring of a series of concentric cordons protecting U.S. citizens following the September 11 terror attacks. The sunk costs in infrastructure, equipment and new personnel at the U.S.-Canadian border are not going to be negotiated away easily now, and the Obama administration has indicated a willingness to discuss greater efficiency in border operations through such things as data sharing. The “thinning” of the border through a reduction in U.S. security requirements for Canadians or a return to pre-Bush border norms is not on offer.

Myth: That the Security and Prosperity Partnership was bad for Canadian sovereignty, and things have been better since the Obama administration eliminated it. Facts to consider: In the absence of negotiations on regulatory and inspection standards, North American economic integration proceeds on the basis of gradual Americanization. The Obama administration proposed a limited agenda for cooperation to replace the SPP at the Guadalajara leaders’ summit in August 2009, and while some progress was made the momentum petered out when Canada did not host the 2010 North American leaders’ summit (it was Canada’s turn). The weak U.S. economy has led the Obama administration to propose domestic regulatory reform and the expansion of U.S. exports. Canada now hopes to engage in these efforts bilaterally to defend the interests of Canadian producers.

Myth: That Mexico is a drag on North America, and should be dropped from meetings in favour of a renewed bilateral U.S.-Canadian approach to North America; once this happens, the two, more sophisticated partners will be able to make greater progress. Facts to consider: the U.S. agenda is overcrowded, and borders and regulatory issues are largely considered to be domestic prerogatives. By structuring negotiations on these issues regionally with both Canada and Mexico participating, a greater proportion of U.S. states, Members of Congress, and economic interests was affected and therefore could help push for progress. Confronted by Canada’s hostility to Mexico, the U.S. has adopted a dual-bilateral strategy for North America with duplicate bilateral dialogues on energy, borders, regulatory and inspection standards. On regulation, Mexico has been more forthcoming than Canada; on energy, Canada has offered more. The United States benefits in many ways from being the hub for Canadian and Mexican spokes, but this arrangement is more time-consuming and makes it more difficult politically for the United States to offer concessions; it will very probably result in either modest progress or further Americanization.

Myth: That Congress is best kept away from US-Canadian relations, and talks with the United States will be better if the interest groups that have criticized Canada for the oil sands and other things and the businesses that have failed to push hard enough for U.S. concessions on border security and other things are marginalized. Facts to consider: The political culture and institutions of the United States lead to public clashes over policy and process; negotiating with the United States involves jumping into the arena, or watching others battle over your interests from the sidelines. A negotiation that excludes stakeholders loses legitimacy and wins opponents, and is unlikely to succeed. This was one of the lessons of the SPP, but it appears that it has been ignored by both federal governments in the Washington Declarations of February 4.

Myth: Bilateral relations are the domain of federal governments, which have primacy on trade, foreign affairs and national security; states and provinces should follow the federal lead and not interfere. Facts to consider: This strict separation between federal and sub-federal roles and responsibilities has become more and more difficult to sustain as the two countries have begun negotiating to remove barriers to trade that come from state and provincial policies, whether it is in the area of “Buy American” or “Buy Local” procurement preferences or environmental standards. Excluding these sub-federal stakeholders makes discussing and implementing agreements more difficult.

The United States and Canada have embarked upon a new approach to addressing the growing need for greater security cooperation and intelligence sharing, and the urgent problem of mismatched regulatory and inspection standards that is hurting productivity and economic competitiveness for both countries, but especially for Canada as the smaller economy.

Brian Lee Crowley is insightful as usual when he reminds us that superstitions and distrust only hold both countries back, and should be abandoned in the interests of a healthier bilateral relationship. However the myths that surround the Washington Declarations are more than superstition, will be harder to dispel, and raise the specter of future disappointment with the results—however impressive they might be in light of the obstacles to their achievement.

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