John Keegan is one of the world’s greatest military historians and in 2004 he wrote The Iraq War – a book that was not without its critics. I read it from a Canadian perspective, of course, and it was glaring to note the absence of any reference to Canada in the entire book. This was interesting because it summarized Canada’s foreign policy in a nutshell: as nothing. Or at its minimum, as poorly conveyed to its citizens.
The issue was not whether we chose to go or not but to give a coherent explanation for the decision. It’s not enough to say “we are not American.” If the Bush administration failed to explain its reasons for invading Iraq, then the Chretien government allowed its arrogance to cloud its ability to tell Canadians why they chose not to participate. In the aftermath of 9/11 only John Manley seemed to have his head screwed on properly as he said all the right things.
Anti-Americanism has always played an uncomfortable role in Canadian public life, but we should not let it direct our foreign policy. Canadians of all people should understand the complexities that the U.S. faces as a superpower.
Over the years, I have observed Canada’s pseudo-patriotism quietly grow as it teeters on unsubstantiated smugness. American-bashing, benign or otherwise, has been a part of the Canadian national discourse for decades. Naturally, friends and neighbours will have disputes. It wouldn’t be normal if there weren’t any. But Canadians should really get over 1812 and America’s failed attempt at invading us.
I have also noticed that we tend to ally our “values” and interests with Europe – a continent we trade very little with. While this is a social question, Canadians who go abroad should nonetheless resist the temptation to bad-mouth Americans for having their own standards. America is not Europe and it is not Canada.
Rather, when a European vehemently disputes America, Canadians should act as a prudent and enlightened mediator. Then again, this may be too much to ask. Canadians already possess a tenuous grasp of their own history. How can we be asked to know America’s?
For all intents and purposes, we are two countries sharing a history. Our goals are the same only we have chosen different paths to reach those goals. As such, our values differ in many ways. However, I fear that we continue to take one another for granted. One of the hallmarks of a true intellect is to borrow the proper ideas from other people. This premise holds true for nations. The only problem is that we are not examining one another free of the prevailing attitudes of our times. In other words, we are not being critical in the right places.
For their part, why should Americans care anyway? Americans can certainly go on without Canada. The reverse is less true for Canada. In this light, Canadians, who have a different perspective on issues, are the ones who need to be mature about their relationship with the U.S. I believe it is incumbent on Canadians to exhibit a reflective posture that can allow them to be intimate with the American experience. Yes, I am calling my country out.
Our own politicians seem oblivious to the exceptional position the U.S. is in. Heck, our leaders are oblivious to many things. If they were more attentive — as they were in the past — they would discount this in their irrational fears and perceptions about America, though new Prime Minister Stephen Harper bucks this trend.
This is not to dismiss America’s responsibilities towards us. Respect is a two-way street. I find that American politicians have been understanding of Canadian sensitivities in the past and governed accordingly. There were, however, some incidences where they were not so kind. These days, the patience in the U.S. to deal with Canadian soft spots is understandably thin. This shouldn’t offend us. Their needs have changed since 9/11, like it or not.
For this to become a reality, leadership is obviously important. Just as relevant, we need intellectual circles to free themselves of colonial shackles to pen essays of enlightened thought about this special bond. I further lament that Canada does not have a strong tradition of true open debate in a vibrant intellectual atmosphere. Ours is an under-siege, cut and paste approach. And don’t look to our newspapers for help on this front. I have no clue what’s going with the masters of our national print media.
I do think Canadians have confidence. We just have a hard time figuring out how to portray it regarding the United States. It’s either too excessive that teeters on wasted and empty arrogance or it is meek and childish in its orientation. We’re still trying to find a balance.
I’m not advocating complete submission to America. Far from it. If one is strong and free then one will act accordingly. What I am saying is that we need to be realistic. Those who complain that we are marionettes are impractical neo-cynics. They are the ones that have no inner confidence in their abilities. Nor should it matter how we are received by other nations. They are not us and they do not know the intricacies that guide and guard the aspirations of both countries. As such, they should not be passing judgement.
I can only draw conclusions from the Canadian perspective. Canada is a place that has not yet realized its full potential in my estimation. We should and can do more. We as Canadians alone should make choices in our best interests.
Alas, today we are not making any real choices. We are swinging around in the dark clinging on to age old myths about the Canadian identity. Don’t be fooled. It’s a mirage.
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