The headlines are ominous. Canada-U.S. relations have hit a “low ebb” and a “new low.” They are “frayed” and “strained.” Really?
A longer-term view suggests recent tensions aren’t all that unusual. Strains over the Keystone XL pipeline, Buy American legislation, the Windsor-Detroit Bridge and a U.S. tax crackdown are typical of the ebb and flow of a sweeping relationship, stretching back decades. There are rough patches, when the list of irritants grows longer, and there are better times.
Through it all, there are a couple of constants. The urgency of these bilateral issues is inevitably more magnified in Canada. Like it or not, the Canadian economy is more dependent on the United States than vice versa.
A second reality – often overlooked in Canada – is the crucial importance of the U.S. electoral clock. Second-term presidents, such as Barack Obama, are always weaker than first-term ones. Their influence wanes as their days in office wind down. Mr. Obama is going into a pivotal midterm in which the Democrats are struggling to hang on to the Senate.
Bruce Heyman, the new U.S. ambassador to Canada, undiplomatically likened the spate of continuing bilateral problems to a “scratch” on the bumper of a new car. In other words, trivial.
His comments underscore constant No. 1: Scratches can cost Canada dearly in lost trade and economic opportunities.
But to suggest relations are at a new low in 2014 is a bit of stretch.
Too many Canadians cling to the notion of a “special relationship” with the United States. Close, yes, special, less so. Special implies privilege, including privileged access to the U.S. market. That is no longer the case with the proliferation of regional and bilateral trade deals, which have undercut much of the advantage Canada enjoyed with bilateral free trade.