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Emerging Trends and U.S.-Canada Policies

Christopher Sands

The 40th anniversary of one of the most respected Canadian studies programs in the United States, at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington provided an occasion for me to do some reflecting on the past and future of the bilateral relationship from the perspective of the United States. The Hudson Institute has just published my remarks, which may provoke reactions (favorable and critical) from the Macdonald-Laurier Institute community.

Forty years ago, 1971, the bilateral relationship was strained by a profound alienation of Canadians and Americans that was reflected by their policymakers. The United States was fighting on in Vietnam, coping with societal changes driven by the feminist and civil rights movements, and attempting to manage inflation along with a sense of economic and geopolitical decline that had infected U.S. leadership. Canada reacted with a “Third Option” foreign policy to find new and better friends, a National Energy Program to encourage U.S. divestment, and a surge of Canadian nationalism that was tinged with anti-Americanism.

There are parallels with the present. The United States is fighting on Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya; societal changes driven by environmental activism, Hispanic immigration and the rise of the Tea Party protests have caused bewilderment and some alienation among Canadians; and U.S. policymakers are again attempting to manage nascent inflation amid a pervasive mood of U.S. economic and geopolitical decline that often seems to be touted by U.S. leadership as no less than our due comeuppance.

Hudson’s founder, the late Herman Kahn, wrote that Canadian attitudes toward the United States during the 1970s had become “ambivalent—or contradictory” (Things to Come: Thinking About the 70s and 80s, with B. Bruce Briggs, Macmillan Company, 1972: p. 62). Johns Hopkins University Professor Charles Doran argued that U.S. leadership had lost its touch in managing relations with Canada (Forgotten Partnership: U.S.-Canada Relations Today, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984).

Today, the tone is very different. Part of the explanation is a credit to Canada’s reaction to the United States and its problems this time around: rather than trying to find new and better friends and promote a disengagement from the United States, Canada has been trying to strengthen the partnership between the two countries. Canada joined the United States in Afghanistan and Libya, and has provided support (though not ground troops) for the United States in Iraq. Instead of the NEP, Canada is building a pipeline to export more oil to the United States. The Harper government has promoted Canadian nationalism, but without the anti-American undertones. Canadian attitudes toward the United States are not so ambivalent, or contradictory.

Another part of the explanation for the better tone of the relationship is a renewed commitment to partnership: the George W. Bush administration pursued the Security and Prosperity Partnership, and the Barack Obama administration continued talks on border and regulatory cooperation but recently amended the process to negotiate with Canada and Mexico on separate, bilateral tracks. U.S. leadership appears to have regained the knack of partnership, at least with the neighbors.

The past forty years have seen the United States government improve its policy approach to Canada. Will this improvement be sustained over the next forty years?

In Bellingham, I argued that four trends that will shape the US approach to the bilateral relationship for the next 40 years: (1) deepening continental economic integration, (2) reaching the limits of current governance of integration, (3) fiscal pressures that will reshape government through a drive for public sector productivity, and (4) a generational transition as Baby Boomers exit public life early, and the Next Generations—with closer ties to Canadians thanks to technology—take over.

These trends are inter-related: the deepening of economic integration is increasingly exposing the limits of the ways that governments (federal and state/provincial) measure, inspect and regulate cross-border flows of goods, people, services and even information. Closing the governance gap for these cross-border flows at a time when fiscal constraints are paramount will require creative thinking about how to achieve more with less, which will become part of the drive for public sector productivity gains to match the incredible private sector productivity gains that fueled the economic boom of the 1990s and 2000s. Reducing the federal work force while automating and digitizing federal work itself will prompt the early retirement of the Baby Boom generation from public sector jobs—unlike the World War II generation, Baby Boomers will take early retirement from government to escape cuts and demands for change in public administration coming from U.S. political leaders as well as voters. The rising generation that will take their places is already better connected to Canada through social networking media, and will conceptualize the U.S. relationship with Canada in new and surprising ways.

This trend-spotting is one of the fun parts of working at a think tank, but unlike the weather forecast, the goal isn’t to predict the future but rather to provide a framework for speculation about what the future might hold. The United States is always changing, but big social trends like continental economic integration, the fiscal crisis affecting the federal government and many of the states, and generational transitions are logically going to have an affect on the U.S.Canada relationship-it doesn’t take a Ph.D. to figure that out. Interpretations of how these changes might affect us is very much open to debate.

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