Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


MAY 2010

The Obama administration's difficulties in persuading some allies to support its foreign policies contrasts with the cooperative ties it has with Canada, our friendly northern neighbor. Stephen Harper, Canada's Conservative Prime Minister, has a good working relationship with Barack Obama, in contrast with the position of the previous Liberal government which distanced itself from the Bush administration.

Last year Harper persuaded parliament to keep the 2,500 Canadian troops in Afghanistan until 2011, despite wide public opposition. Support is growing, however, to retain a small, non-combat Canadian force beyond 2011 in support of a major NATO training mission to help Afghan forces establish security in the country.

In another example of its cooperation with Washington, Canada was an early responder to the January earthquake disaster in Haiti. It sent a security force as well as humanitarian aid to provide security and feed residents of the capital, Port-a-Prince.

With a population roughly one-tenth (33.7 million) the size of America's, Canada is nevertheless this country's most important trading partner. In 2009, the U.S.-Canada trade in goods was $429 billion (compared with China at $389 billion, and Mexico at $305 billion)., making it the world's largest bilateral trading arrangement.

An astonishing 79 percent of Canada's exports go to the U.S. market, while 54 percent of its imports come from the United States. This country imports far more crude oil from Canada than from any other country, amounting in January to 1.9 million barrels per day. Mexico ranked second with 1.03 million.

In recent years, the trade balance between the two countries has favored Canada, and the Canadian dollar has now strengthened to where it currently equals the U.S. dollar. During the 2008 financial crisis in the United States, Canada's banks were in a much stronger position and didn't need government support.

Many Americans make the mistake of thinking that "Canadians are like us" and take Canada for granted. But those of us who have lived in Canada appreciate that, beneath the friendliness and good humor of its people, there is a wariness about the United States and many of its policies.

For example, Canadians generally appreciate the universal health care coverage they receive from the single-payer program run by the federal and provincial governments They don't understand why Barack Obama's recently enacted modest health care program generated such bitter debate in Congress and the public. Canadians deplore the high murder rate in American cities and our unwillingness to legislate strict gun control laws.

Two issues that currently affect U.S.-Canada relations are security measures imposed at the U.S. border, and the lack of a U.S. energy policy that takes account of environmental problems that affect both countries, specifically CO2 emissions.

Many Canadian analysts believe our two countries should adopt continental arrangements on border security (common visa procedures and GPS tracking technology) to the benefit of both countries' economies. In particular, they say, enhanced intelligence cooperation on tracking potential terrorists would enhance mutual security.

Canadian governments believe that the armed forces should not be used to intervene in a foreign country without approval from U.N. Security Council. For that reason, Canada did not support the U.S. war in Vietnam, and it refused to join the Bush administration's 2003 decision to invade Iraq. It did, however, send troops to Korea (1950) and Afghanistan, and it supported the NATO pacification of Bosnia in 1996.

A new disagreement between Ottawa and Washington centers on Canada's view on how to regulate banks to avoid future bail-outs, like those that occurred in the United States and Europe. At a G-20 meeting in April, Canada objected to proposals to levy a tax on banks and argued that its banks did not require that kind of treatment.

Jim Flaherty, Canada's finance minister, asserted his opposition with these words: "We're a sovereign country. We can manage our banks and other financial institutions as we see fit." He added: "I'm not going to impose a tax on our banks that performed well during the financial crisis." (Financial Times, April 24, "Leading Nations Struggle To Build a Consensus on Bank Tax Plans.")

Flaherty's position was in opposition to views expressed by U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, who acknowledged Canada's objection but said the United States would go ahead with its plan and predicted that "I'm quite sure the world will move with us." (Financial Times, April 24)

Despite these differences, Americans should thank our good fortune that, as the world faces new dangers in the 21st century, we have Canada as a peaceful, prosperous, and self-confident ally on our northern border.

File last modified on Sunday, 09-MAY-2010 11:55 PM EST

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