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Sleeping with a restless elephant by Michael Byers
Sleeping with a restless elephant by Michael Byers

November 7, 2004
PIERRE TRUDEAU once compared Canada's relationship with the United States to sleeping with a well-meaning, albeit inattentive, elephant. Yet the American elephant has harmed Canada these last four years, making George W. Bush's re-election a major challenge for Ottawa policymakers. Any Canadian forestry worker, cattleman or wheat farmer will confirm that the Bush administration has abused our bilateral trading relationship. Bush has never hesitated to wilfully instigate trade disputes to protect U.S. business interests, whether logging companies in North Carolina and Washington State, ranchers in Colorado, Wyoming and Texas, or durum-wheat producers in North Dakota. He has also placed the whole North American economy at risk by four years of gross fiscal mismanagement. When Bill Clinton left office, Washington was running a record surplus; today, it has taken on a record deficit. Some of the red ink may have been unavoidable -- the U.S. economy entered a recession in late 2000 when the bubble burst -- but the situation was greatly exacerbated by massive tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans and, more recently, new tax loopholes for large U.S.-based corporations. As a result, the U.S. dollar has plummeted, economic growth has slowed, and millions of people have either lost their jobs or been forced to take lower-paying employment with fewer benefits. These developments have pushed the Canadian dollar higher against the greenback, hurting Canadian exporters and hindering the Canadian economy as a whole. Bush's administration has opposed many international institutions and agreements that are strongly supported by Canada, including the International Criminal Court, Landmines Convention and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. He went to war in Iraq without the clear authorization of the UN Security Council, and has repeatedly distorted and misapplied the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq and Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan. This willingness to eschew multilateralism and violate international law contrasts sharply with all that Canada stands for. It also threatens our influence, since it is this country's expertise and leadership within a multilateral context that has enabled us to "punch above our weight". The U.S. president's incautious actions and inflammatory rhetoric since Sept. 11, 2001, have provoked greater global insecurity -- to everyone's detriment, including Canada. Whether it's the threat of "you're either with us or you're against us", the use of the word "crusade" to describe military action against Islamic opponents, the designation of an "axis of evil", or the threatening of the UN with "irrelevance", the president has demonstrated an almost uncanny capacity to unnecessarily alienate and anger potential allies and friends. The premature, largely unilateral invasion of Iraq annoyed the Muslim world, and the failure to protect the Iraqi people and infrastructure after the invasion -- exacerbated by the photographs of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib -- turned that annoyance into fury. Bush has also pushed ahead with the development of a missile-defence system that could provoke a new arms race, lead to the weaponization of space, and divert huge sums of money away from humanitarian programs and international development assistance. Washington has been exerting strong pressure to have Canada publicly embrace missile defence, even though such a move would contradict our traditional stance on disarmament and dilute our influence as an independent international player. Finally, Bush has been grossly negligent on climate change. Today, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere is nearly 40 per cent above pre-industrialization levels. In the western Arctic, average annual temperatures have increased three degrees Celsius in my lifetime. As a result, the ice cap is thinning and shrinking, and mercury and other sequestered toxins are leaching out of the melting permafrost and into the ocean, threatening walruses, whales, seals and polar bears. Last month, British Prime Minister Tony Blair warned that climate change could be "so far-reaching in its impact and irreversible in its destructive power, that it alters radically human existence." Yet the leader of the world's most powerful country (and the largest emitter of greenhouse gases) has refused even to acknowledge the role of human activity in climate change. Still, the American people have spoken, and George W. Bush holds power for another four years. Which raises the question of how Canada should respond to the elephant next door. On trade, Prime Minister Paul Martin is right to seek a rapid resolution of the lumber and cattle disputes, but he must resist any pressure to link the remedying of these disputes to other matters such as the introduction of common immigration standards. Furthermore, whenever Washington violates NAFTA, Canada should stand its ground. We are, after all, the United States' largest trading partner, making them almost as dependent on us as we are on them. On the economy, Martin has much to teach his American counterpart about balanced budgets. It's important that he makes his views heard, since the apparent fragility of the current U.S. economy places all countries at risk. The U.S. president may not be a good listener, but friendship sometimes entails telling the other person honestly and directly when and where they've gone wrong. On international institutions such as the International Criminal Court, there's room for Canada and the United States to disagree. Those problems that might arise -- for instance when joint military operations bring our differing legal obligations into potential conflict -- can usually be identified and resolved in advance through good communication and creative planning. There is also reason to hope that Bush will slowly learn, as did Ronald Reagan, the value of multilateral approaches as the United States continues to carry most of the costs arising out of the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. Missile defence is also less of a problem than it appears, since Canada has already agreed to allow NORAD to share its satellite and radar information with the missile-defence system. By doing so, we've preserved NORAD, provided the United States with everything it really needs, and given ourselves the attractive option of stopping right there. In doing so, we might retain our traditional position -- "as Canadian as possible under the circumstances." As for the challenge of climate change, leadership is desperately needed if the world is to respond in a meaningful way by quickly developing alternative energy technologies, reducing emissions through conservation, and adapting our economy and infrastructure as the climate further evolves. If the United States won't lead this effort, why not Canada? Instead of resenting our southern neighbours' policies, we could show them what is possible, thereby addressing this critical environmental issue, leading the world, and perhaps -- since alternative energy can be profitable -- even gaining an economic benefit by doing so. Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. He also serves as Academic Director of the Liu Institute for Global Issues.
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