December 2013 Commentary

What Happens to Canada if US is in Decline?

by J. L. Granatstein

Empires rise and empires fall. The Twentieth Century belonged to the United States, the richest, most powerful empire the world has ever seen. But the 21st Century? Most Americans now seem to believe—according to opinion polls—that their nation is over-extended and ought to pay less attention to global issues. Fix America first, they say, as they abuse President Obama for his domestic and foreign failures. 

Observers abroad also worry about Obama’s weak foreign policy and his inability to get anything through an obdurate Congress. The United States is unable to deal effectively with Syria, on the verge of quitting Afghanistan, humbled by the mess in Iraq, taking criticism for failing to genuinely rein in Iran’s nuclear progress, and challenged by a surging China economically and politically. The colossus has been humbled.

Too many Canadians revel in our great neighbour’s troubles. Anti-Americanism is as Canadian as apple pie, something fed to Canadians in their mother’s milk. As always, there are issues over trade, pipelines, investments, job losses in US-owned plants, and defence—the list is endless. And the Sochi Olympics coming in February will stoke nationalism even further—there’s nothing like playing hockey against the US team to get Canadian passions a-boil.

If the US is weakened, some Canadians believe, that can only help to advance Canadian interests. Could we not re-claim our economy, switch our trade to Asia, and cash in on the trade deal with the European Union? Could Canada not find its’ own way forward?

Not now, not ever. Canadians forget too much about the United States. Since 1938, for example, this nation has lived under an American defence umbrella, able to rely on the United States to protect Canada’s territory and population. This infringed on Canadian sovereignty, to be sure, but it did let Canadian governments spend more on social programmes and less on the military. The result may not have been the free ride that some have called it, but it was certainly a much cheaper ride than if Ottawa had been required to pay the full costs for the defence needed to protect the Canadian people. If the United States turns inward and protects only its own territory without regard to the northern approaches to its heartland, Canadians would face a chilly, expensive future.

While that is unlikely to occur, there seems every prospect that an enfeebled Washington might pay less attention to global problems. Canadians who still believe in the United Nations and trumpet the Responsibility to Protect doctrine may feel pleased at such a shift. But in the real world of today that attitude can’t last long. The UN is a broken, ineffectual reed, R2P is a dead letter, and Canada has no power to intervene or truly influence the big decisions. 

Critics point to the glories of the Pearsonian era and blame Stephen Harper for all this loss of clout, but it’s not his fault. Power comes from speaking softly while holding the big sticks, and Canada alone can talk all it wants, but it cannot wield even a twig. Our voice mattered at a few points in time, but we are not a great power and never will be. Much of our global influence in the past, moreover, came from the access we had to the White House, State Department, and Congress, the possibility that we could affect US policy while it was being formed. We could advise and warn, and sometimes the Yanks even listened. Our influence was limited, but it had weight on occasion. Is there anyone in Canada who thinks the oligarchy in Beijing will ever listen to us while policy is made there?

Then there is trade. The lure of the great China market persists—if only we could sell one snowmobile to every Chinese our economic problems would be resolved! But China accounts only for a small portion of Canadian exports—some $20 billion worth in 2012, and the US share, though it has been dropping over time, is huge by comparison. Canadian trade with the US in the single month of October 2013 was $30 billion and, thanks to the US’ economic recovery, that trade had increased 5.3 percent over a year. In other words, the US market remains our best one by far, and that is unlikely to change much unless the US economy, the American position in the world, goes into a tailspin. 

The United States still matters in and to the world. It will always matter to Canada, one of the luckiest places on earth. For better or worse, we are North Americans, and our fate, our prosperity, is inextricably tied to that of the still-great super power to our south.

J.L. Granatstein is a Distinguished Research Fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

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