It has been true for decades that Americans and their media give more attention to events in far-off countries than they do to our neighbors and largest trading partners, Canada and Mexico. This grates on the attitudes of Canadians and Mexicans.
The United States is the only major power that can afford to ignore its neighbors. Consider the concerns of other powers: Japan fears a nuclear-armed North Korea, India and Pakistan face a new war over rival claims in Kashmir, Turkey worries about a revitalized and aggressive Russia, China and Russia watch each other warily over their long Asian border, and Britain, France, and Germany--traditional rivals for dominance in Europe--are at loggerheads in the European Union over competing views of foreign and defense policy.
Our country settled its border problems with Canada and Mexico by 1900 and also ousted Spain from its colonies in the Caribbean. The United States was then secure enough at home to take up a security role after World War II in Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East.
America emerged from World War II as the world's most powerful nation economically, and it has continued to dominate international commercial relations. This new role included large financial aid to help Europe and Japan rebuild after 1945 and become profitable markets for U.S. goods and services. Although both are now competing economic power centers, the United States continues to be the world's economic giant.
Another factor giving the United States the luxury of taking its neighbors for granted is its vast military power. U.S. supremacy in arms capability was reinforced during the 1990s after the Soviet Union's demise in 1991 and decisions by European governments to cut defense budgets.
Canada and Mexico benefited greatly from America's economic and military power. A U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in the 1980s was followed by the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993 linking Canada, Mexico, and the United States. These trade pacts opened their borders to a huge increase in trade, especially between Canada and the United States.
Canada has long been America's number one trading partner; Mexico overtook Japan in 2000 to became our second most important partner. The White House announced recently that Mexican trucks will for the first time be permitted to haul cargo on all U.S. highways, delivering Mexico's products to American markets. Canada earned that right under the Free Trade Agreement..
The downside of this relationship between a superpower and its neighbors is that Canada and Mexico, particularly Canada, are essentially military dependencies of the United States, and both are heavily dependant economically on the American market and U.S. investment. Huge private capital from this country flows into Canada, with a lesser amount invested in Mexico. The reality of this dependence hurts the pride of many Mexicans and Canadians.
Mexico complains that NAFTA's rules harm many of its farmers and small businesses. For many years they were insulated from cheaper imports by high protective tariffs. Now, on January 1, 2003, a NAFTA provision requires the reduction of Mexico's import tariff on Americans chicken products, from 49% to zero. That large change will force many Mexicans out of the poultry business. News that their truckers can use U.S. highways does not lift the spirits of Mexico's chicken farmers.
U.S. relations with both Canada and Mexico deteriorated after terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001. After he took office nine months earlier, President Bush courted Mexico's new president, Vincente Fox, by visiting him in Mexico and promising to look into ways that an immigration issue involving illegal Mexican workers might be resolved. Mexico also wanted U.S. financial assistance to help its lagging economy during a recession. After September 11, however, Bush was preoccupied with a terrorist crisis and the need to focus on Afghanistan. As a result, President Fox lost influence in Washington and in his own country.
Nevertheless, Mexico recently voted with the United States at the U.N. Security Council on a resolution imposing tough inspections of Iraq's nuclear and chemical weapons facilities.
The impact of the 9-11 attacks on U.S. relations with Canada was more serious. That country's lax immigration laws, it was said, permitted persons of Middle East origin to live in Canada without a careful look into their backgrounds. Terrorist cells were discovered in several Canadian cities, and some U.S. security officials complained that Ottawa was slow to recognize the danger and respond to urgent requests for cooperation.
Similarly, Prime Minister Jean Chretien was slow to respond to Washington's requests to the NATO allies to join the fight against Afghanistan's Taliban regime and the entrenched al-Qaida cadres of Osama bin Laden. Early this year Canada sent 800 troops to assist American special forces in eastern Afghanistan, but most were withdrawn in May after a Canadian combat team on night training was mistakenly attacked by U.S. fighter jets. Four were killed and others were injured. Canadians were deeply troubled by this instance of cooperation with U.S. forces.
A larger problem for Washington and Ottawa, however, is the very small size of Canada's armed forces which number only 55,000 in a nation approaching 35 million. Canada's defense budget of $12.5 billion(Cdn.) is among the lowest of the NATO counties, in terms of GNP.
Several months ago Mr. Chretien said that Canada did not plan to participate in a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Last month he reluctantly agreed to consider sending a small contingent if the United Nations authorized use of force against Saddam Hussein's regime. Canadians applauded President Bush's recent decision to get U.N. approval for the return of arms inspectors to Iraq. Three weeks ago, at the NATO summit in Prague, Chretien's press secretary, Francoise Ducros, was overheard by a Canadian journalist referring to President Bush as a "moron." That's similar to hearing White House spokesman Ari Fleisher calling the leader of a friendly country an "idiot." Chretien at first refused to accept Ducros' resignation, but after an uproar in the Canadian press he reluctantly agreed. He did not help his reputation in Washington by his comments about the president: "He's a friend of mine. He's not a moron at all."
Several months ago Chretien announced that he would not seek reelection as Liberal Party leader when his term expires. This is his tenth year as the head of his party and government, and many Canadians think he has stayed too long. But Chretien will remain as prime minister for another year, and Canada's relations with Washington could remain strained.
A basic problem is that Canada has lived for forty years under an elaborate social welfare system, including a very costly national health program, and at the same time cut its defense budget and the military forces. And Chretien boasts that he has a balanced federal budget. A parliamentary commission recently recommended a substantial increase for defense, but the prime minister says he will limit the amount to just $1 billion because the budget for next year can't accommodate a larger sum.
It may take another election and a new prime minister to encourage Canadians to shoulder their weight in NATO defense affairs and once again be a major partner of the United States in providing security for Europe and the Persian Gulf.
File last modified on Thursday, 13-AUG-2004 07:00 PM EST