Anglosphere: Worthy Canadian initiatives

By JAMES C. BENNETT   |   April 20, 2002 at 6:00 PM
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An American newspaper once held a contest to invent the most boring headline imaginable: the winner was "worthy Canadian initiative." This fact is illustrative of much about the American-Canadian relationship, including the fact the very placidity of the relationship disguises one of the most successful collaborative relationships in the world. At a time when the further homogenization of the Europe Union's states is considered newsworthy, a less dramatic but more successful model goes virtually unnoticed.

Two events this week are worth considering in the light of the American-Canadian relationship; one that has garnered headlines, the other which has gone virtually unnoticed south of the border. Yet the second, which could probably be characterized accurately under the "worthy initiative" headline, is the one with the potential to affect the future course of North America, and possibly beyond, most profoundly.

The first was the death of four Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan in a friendly-fire incident for which an American pilot's error appears to be the cause. That this event has been elevated to headline status is indicative of the nature of high-tech warfare, with its low casualty rates.

In earlier wars, substantial levels of deaths from operational accidents, training accidents and pure tragic blunders became noise-level events, mostly unreported, merely minor statistics overwhelmed by the assembly-line deaths of industrial-era warfare. What was the death toll from training and accident in the Normandy invasion? Nobody ever speaks of it, although it was probably not small. Today, accustomed to the low death tolls of high-tech combat, we can know the names of these casualties and see their families on television.

But these deaths also serve to remind us of the fact that, like the British, Australians, and New Zealanders, the Canadians have sent their forces to fight beside the United States, and under U.S. oversight. Underlying this reality is one of the most successful international cooperative defense structures in existence, the American-Canadian military collaboration. It is so quiet and unnoticed that it is hardly ever commented upon. One only has to compare it to much more rudimentary steps toward intra-European military cooperation to understand how successful it is.

The other event this week that deserves attention, but has mostly been lost behind the bloody and tragic headlines from other parts of the world, was the publication of the first of a series of papers from the C.D. Howe Institute, a Canadian think tank, on the future of North American economic integration. As with American-Canadian military cooperation, this is a success story so complete that it barely, if ever comes to general attention, and then usually only when something goes wrong.

Yet America and Canada have taken a series of gradual steps that have, cumulatively, greatly expanded economic cooperation, to the benefit of both. Sept. 11 has added a new dimension, however. By raising border security to a new level of awareness, and demonstrating the devastating economic effects of even a mild tightening of the border, it has made thoughtful people on both sides of the border realize that further steps will be needed.

The Howe Institute report does a good job of laying out what various further steps might entail. By understanding the pros and cons of customs unions, common markets, currency unions, and full economic integration (the latter roughly the European Union model), they help create a roadmap of the future for both Americans and Canadians, and one that should get more attention than it has to date.

This is not to say that anything that can be contemplated is necessarily a good idea. As a fan of loose cooperative ties but not the construction of superstates, I suspect that a customs union is probably a good idea, and perhaps some elements of a common market as well. On the other hand, a full common market is problematic for at least the foreseeable future, as is a common currency. And full economic integration may eventually evolve; I don't think either side would be happy with the institutions needed to force-feed it to us, a la Brussels.

What is left unsaid in the Howe report, at least so far, is a further set of questions about how deep and how wide economic integration should spread. The biggest question is the immediate future of NAFTA. America and Canada have a long history of military, diplomatic, and economic cooperation, one which is longer, and has run far deeper, than that of the United States and Mexico. As a practical matter, the United States and Canada can contemplate new deeper cooperative institutions sooner than the United States and Mexico can contemplate for themselves.

While the United States and Mexico also benefit from free trade and cooperation, that relationship needs quite different approaches than those that work between the US and Canada. Trying to turn NAFTA into a one-size-fits-all institution in fact serves nobody well.

Future economic and structural cooperation should go down two distinct paths in the future. One path must be optimised for cooperation between nations with substantially different levels of development and with significant differences in institutions. The other, that roadmapped by the Howe report, would apply to nations with substantially more similar institutions.

Another "worthy Canadian initiative" in recent months has been the outreach by various Canadians, and particularly former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, to New Zealand and Australia, with the goal of encouraging those countries to enter NAFTA. This relationship is, frankly, one of the most tempting and lowest-hanging pieces of fruit on the tree right now, and one that should be grasped by all. Beyond NAFTA, many of the institutions contemplated in the Howe study could be extended to Australia and New Zealand as well, and those steps should be contemplated and studied.

At present, Australia's and New Zealand's prompt and unreserved support for America in Afghanistan properly deserves gratitude from President Bush. It is time to place not only the Howe agenda for Canada on the table, but to extended to the antipodean allies as well.

To reach James Bennett, send an email to

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