Writing about Canada is a guilty pleasure for me. I find endless intellectual stimulation in delving into the particulars of a country that is so close – and yet somehow so far – in political and cultural norms to my own. I also find it highly entertaining at how offended my Canadian friends and colleagues are when I don’t talk about Canada… and how horrified they are when I do. (It’s one thing when this dumb Yank proves aware of Canada’s inner workings, and quite another when he highlights cracks in the façade of liberal Canadian perfection.)
Recent events have put the typically sleepy world of Canadian-American relations front and center. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau played host the G7 summit (which triggered this series). His team crafted an agenda for the summit, most of which American President Donald Trump found so superfluous that he came late and left early. Trudeau’s post-summit firm rejection of American trade tariffs (firm by Canadian standards, that is) so enraged Trump that Trudeau found himself the target of a presidential tweetstorm.
Terms like “dishonest” and “mistake” and “Canada will pay” peppered the airwaves. Trump’s trade advisor, Peter Navarro, went so far as to assert there was a “special place in hell” for Trudeau for his alleged baiting and switching of Canadian policy positions. (Navarro later recanted on his hell quote, although it was pretty clear his heart wasn’t in the apology).
Despite my glee that writing about Canada is fully topical, I get no joy from what I see coming down the pipe. The end of the global system is putting the existence of Canada into mortal danger. It all has to do with how the Canadians are attempting to manage the Trump administration.
First, let’s put Canada into the Bretton Woods context:
The United States set up the Bretton Woods system in order to fight the Cold War. The Americans traded global market access for security cooperation. It was a straightforward butter-for-guns swap.
As the Americans withdraw from maintaining the Bretton Woods system, all the structures they established – the WTO, NATO, free trade, freedom of the seas – are disintegrating. All the things that thrived in a world of open borders and wealth – the EU, the Chinese Communist Party, OPEC, globalized manufacturing supply chains – will crash and burn. Very few of these collapses will be clean. There will be chaos. There will be wars. Some will stay local. Some will span continents. A lot of B- and C-list countries will cease to be. Even a couple of the A-list face dissolution. Canada was a founding member of the Bretton Woods agreements, and Bretton Woods’ fall will impact Canada as well.
But Canada is different.
Global chaos has zero impact on domestic Canadian security. With the Cold War over, the Americans are freeing themselves of the responsibility of defending Europe from Russia on one side and from defending Japan, South Korea and Taiwan from China and North Korea on the other. (A particularly cold reading of the Eurasian situation suggests renewed conflicts on both of Eurasia’s ends might be good for the United States’ overall strategic position, but let’s leave that debate for another day.) Yet the Americans can never stop defending North America. Canada has the option of getting a free ride even if relations with Washington tank.
What about economics? Consider the rest of the world. When China or the EU beat the trade war drum, I find it kind of sad. Economic success in China and Europe has proven possible largely because of the economic concessions allowed and security environment imposed by the Americans. The Americans subsidize the global trade and security order in order to purchase the cooperation of the Bretton Woods allies, but the war the Americans needed the allies for ended three decades ago. The Americans no longer get much utility from the Order that makes everyone else’s systems possible. The Order’s end won’t cost the Americans much. Anti-American chest-beating may make good local political fodder, but anything that pisses off the Americans in general – or America’s thin-skinned leader in particular – just seems suicidal to me.
But Canada is different.
Canada has something other Bretton Woods members do not: leverage. Canada is directly adjacent to the United States. That means the Americans traded with the Canadians not only before Bretton Woods, but before the industrial revolution hit the North American continent. NAFTA is the only active trade deal the Americans have that was not a strategic swap of the Bretton Woods model.
That provides Canada a unique opening. Broadscale chaos in the global system will not overly harm the domestic American experience, but mild chaos in North America would. Unlike Japan or France or Italy or Germany or the United Kingdom, the Canadians have their claws into the American economy’s guts, giving Canada the option of hitting America where it hurts. When the Canadians talk reciprocal tariffs, it matters.
And the Canadians know what to do with that leverage, because Canada has something else the other Bretton Woods allies lack: insight.
Because Canada is different.
The bulk of the Canadian population lives within a couple hour drive of the U.S. border, massed on road and water infrastructure that admits Canadian citizens and commerce to the most densely populated American territories. Integration – economic, cultural, political – is guaranteed. Canadians and Americans are family. It’s a family where the Americans outnumber the Canadians nearly ten-to-one, but isn’t the younger, smaller sibling always the thoughtful, scrappy one?
Canadians might not always like what they see, but issue number one for any Canadian government is managing relations with their primary security, economic, trade, cultural, and political partner. America’s power and insulation from the wider world combined with the imbalance between Canada and America means the Americans can take a rather lazy approach to all things foreign. Canada’s lack of power and lack of insulation from the United States means the Canadians can never take bilateral Canadian-American relations for granted. And so Canada studies the United States more than the Americans study Russian, Chinese, Iranian, North Korean, Mexican, energy, trade, disarmament, military, and immigration issues combined. Canada knows the United States intimately, while the United States barely registers what’s going on north of its border. (The only country that even comes close to studying the United States as intently is Israel.)
In a time of global breakdown, all this security, leverage and insight has encouraged the Canadians to play hardball.
Canada’s foreign policy of late hasn’t seemed to be about protecting the global order, but is instead about wrecking it:
• Canada is pursuing cases against the United States at the WTO that – should Canada win – actually hurt Canadian producers and exporters… but a win would prompt the Americans to abandon the WTO altogether.
• Canada is one of only a scant handful of NATO countries that has made any effort to increase its military spending… but rather than spending on NATO programs, the assets it is building are for independent power projection.
• Canada’s intransigence in NAFTA talks are likely to wreck the negotiations altogether… assuming the Trump administration in the United States and likely incoming López Obrador administration in Mexico don’t wreck them first.
The logic is as simple as it is dark:
If the global order does not collapse, Canada will have made itself the leader of the anti-Trump league of nations, reaping beaucoup gravitas for the country in general and for the Trudeau administration in particular. If the global order does collapse, the Canadians have a separate trade deal with the United States outside of NAFTA and the WTO, so Canada would be the only country of consequence to retain access to the world’s largest and most stable market as the world falls apart.
Such a scorched earth policy has almost a Trumpian feel to it, but delivered as it has been with panache, politeness and perfectly poised hair, the world in general and Americans in specific have interpreted Canada’s burn-it-all-down campaign as a hug offensive. (Say what you will about the Trudeau team, they know how to manage public relations!)
Canada’s hardball strategy is clever, but clever is not the same thing as smart. There is a very real risk that the Trudeau government’s America strategy puts the very existence of Canada in doubt.
In most places a single ethnic group forms in a specific location and forms a government to look after the interests of that people in that place. The people and their government then expand outwards until they control a large, rich and securable enough geography that they can become what we now call a nation-state. The English of England dominate Great Britain, the French of the Beauce dominate metropolitan France, the Japanese of the Seto Inland Sea dominate the Home Islands, and so on.
But Canada is different.
Canada is by far the least centralized of all the world’s operational countries. Canada is a settler state, colonized by a mix of different ethnicities in different places. The governments of settler states are far less centralized than those of the traditional nation-states, with a great deal of decision-making power reserved for regional and local governments.
It is a direct reflection of Canada’s geography. The northern four-fifths of Canada is tundra, taiga and the broken poor-soil, heavily-forested lakelands of the Canadian Shield. Its entire population exists like a sort of thin frosting on the southern border. But even this is broken up into disparate pieces.
Populated British Colombia, which is to say the city of Vancouver, is blocked by a 12-hour winding drive through the Canadian Rockies from the Prairie provinces. The Prairies are blocked by a 24-hour winding drive through the Canadian Shield from Ontario and Quebec, Quebec is blocked by a 10-hour winding drive through deep forest from Halifax, the largest city in the Maritimes (whose name gives away that you cannot drive to most of it). Each province has its own legislature which enjoys broad decision-making power almost over everything but foreign and defense affairs. Topics that are national policies in most countries as a matter of course tend to be devolved to the provincial level.
Much has been made – rightly – of how the cultural split between Anglophone Ontario and Francophone Quebec threatens Canada’s national coherence. The two provinces may have the bulk of Canada’s population, but starkly different economic management styles have generated starkly different economic structures – and it doesn’t help that Ontario’s window on the world is the St Lawrence Seaway… a waterway Quebec controls. Quebecois independence referendums have, repeatedly, threatened Canada with national dissolution.
But Quebec separatism is hardly the biggest threat to Canada these days. Ontario ultimately bought Quebecois loyalty to Canada by paying Quebec off. Fat financial transfers – largely funded by taxes on Ontarians – have kept the Quebecois fat and happy. But times are changing. Canada has the world’s second most distorted and fourth fastest-aging demographics. The Quebecois are on the cusp of mass retirement which means the state will need a lot more money to support a population that will no longer be working. But the Ontarians are but three years behind, meaning that Ontarians can no longer afford to pay the Quebecois to be part of Canada.
The two provinces have decided the solution is to jack up taxes on the remaining provinces to make up the difference. But citizens of the Maritimes and British Colombia are as old or older than the Quebecois and Ontarians. That leaves the tax burden on the Prairies, most notably on Alberta and Saskatchewan. In The Accidental Superpower I included a chapter titled “The Alberta Question” in which I detailed at length how the disconnects between Alberta and the rest of Canada threatened the country’s national coherence. I stand by that assessment, but now I see something more ominous.
The United States is a global power. As such it has a lot of brands in a lot of fires at any particular time. Canada may be America’s largest trading power, but the Americans haven’t viewed Canada as a security threat in nearly two centuries. Washington tends to allow American-Canadian disputes to slide down the to-do list. That, in part, is what has enabled the current Canadian government to take such a firm stance on trade issues. There’s a perfectly reasonable expectation that the Americans will get distracted by something shiny out there in the great wide world, and give in to Ottawa just to simplify things.
But something most Canadians miss is that while their proximity to and close relationship with the United States does indeed grant them security and leverage and insight, that’s only an advantage if the Americans are distracted.
End America’s position as the global leader. Take most of those irons out of the fire. Contract America’s already small international economic footprint. Washington’s to-do list shrinks immeasurably. Purely by circumstance, Canada moves up. Way up.
Canada faces very real danger of national fracture without American attention. But if the American population or presidency perceives – rightly or wrongly – that Canada is part of the problem rather than part of the solution, then the full power of the American system can be brought to bear on its politically, economically and strategically fragile neighbor.
Many Canadians think of Trump as a child, but there are soooo many weak points in the Canadian confederation it would be child’s play to pry it apart. Even without going for the jugulars of Albertan or Quebecois separatism, there are a host of options. Here’s a few:
- Canada’s riven geography means every Canadian province trades more with the United States than with the rest of Canada. Canada only implemented their first comprehensive internal free trade agreement among the provinces last year. Granting preferential access to this or that province’s politically sensitive sector in exchange for monkeywrenching Ottawa would be painfully simple.
- The Ontario-Quebec cultural split means Ontario gets more electricity and electricity inputs from the United States than it does from neighboring, hydropower-driven Quebec. That gives Washington the ability to jerk with energy supplies and/or tariffs to either benefit – or harm – Canada’s two core provinces.
- Pipeline politics in Canada have forced Prairie producers to shunt nearly all their petroleum exports south to and through the United States rather than to their own country’s ports despite orders from the central government that new pipes should be routed through British Colombia. Carrot and/or stick options to benefit or slam Canada’s primary export moneymaker abound.
- An environmental/petroleum spat between Alberta and British Colombia is forcing BC to get most of their refined products from the United States. Restricting and/or allowing such products to flow enable the Americans to take sides on what has become a blistering Canadian domestic argument.
The Maritimes survive on financial life support from Ottawa, a situation that can only persist so long as Ottawa has spare cash. Any number of tweaks of American policy could crimp the financial flow.As America’s global interests shrivel, Canada may be about to evolve from the country that the Americans are most likely to grant a pass to the one they are least likely to ignore.
After all, Canada is different.