Mar. 22, 2003
Decision not to fight a sign of confidence
Ties to the U.S. not likely to suffer


War is always a nightmare. Occasionally, it shapes a national dream.

One of those rare moments slipped by this week when Jean Chrétien finally, formally, unequivocally announced that Canada wouldn't join the U.S. invasion of Iraq. A sovereign nation exercised its sovereign right to abstain from a conflict that may be illegal and is certainly unwise.

Finding themselves isolated on the wrong side of a defining issue, Stephen Harper of the Canadian Alliance and others more worried about trade than morality or principles, accused the Prime Minister of letting the prevailing winds of public opinion set the country's course. Harper and his neo-conservative friends are half right.

After joining a just cause in Afghanistan, after linking arms to push Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait a decade ago, Canadians this time considered U.S. arguments, arguments that seemed to change by the hour, and found them wanting. A war about regimes, a war fought without United Nations sanction, would be a war fought without Canada.

That much is easily grasped. But there are other layers to this consensus — layers Chrétien understands and layers that confuse political opponents.

Canadians are increasingly confident they can share an integrated North American economy and remain distinct from a country they both admire and want to keep at comfortable arm's length. Nothing defines that distinctness more clearly than a line drawn in the Iraqi sand.

As pollster and analyst Frank Graves argues, the critical relationship with the United States is now Canada's window on the world and, more important, a prism.

Seen through that prism, a suspect war, one that indirectly threatens this country's interests by making Washington prosecutor, judge and jury, separates our few differences from our many similarities.

Those differences leap from the pages of polling conducted by Ekos Research, Graves' Ottawa-based firm.

Canadians are less ideological, less xenophobic, more secular than our southern friends now fighting a war burdened by the export of the American way, an us-versus-them mentality, and religion. At the same time, there is a keen awareness that goods flow south and money flows north.

Graves captures that apparent disconnect this way: "We don't want to be seen as sycophants, but we don't want to cut off our economic nose to save our face."

So the federal government is tiptoeing through a diplomatic minefield. It won't send troops to Iraq, but it will send them to Afghanistan. It won't commit ships to this war, but it will leave them on station in the Gulf as part of the war on terrorism. It won't help bring Saddam Hussein down, but it will help rebuild the country. It vehemently disagrees with U.S. policy, but won't poke gratuitous sticks in Uncle Sam's eye.

But can a small country living in the shadow of a military and economic giant have it both ways?

The circumstantial evidence is as compelling as it is negative. Worried executives point to the line of transport trucks idling at the border and warn that exports sustaining a trading nation will be choked.

Familiar analysts make familiar arguments that a country protected by a neighbour must do its bit, however insignificant, when war drums beat.

All of that was parsed, weighed and then reconsidered by a surprisingly small group of advisers.

The Prime Minister then made a decision that draws more heavily on what we are than what we sell.

One of those advisers talked about that decision through the curtain of anonymity this week. While recognizing that the United States absorbs 87 per cent of exports, while accepting that Washington wanted the diplomatic cover Canada usually provides, Chrétien made a choice based on principles, one that was first telegraphed to Bush at a meeting in Mexico more than a year ago.

Other versions are seeping out of the Sphinx-like foreign affairs building known here as Fort Pearson.

Pragmatism led Ottawa to the conclusion it could afford to stay on the sidelines, a hard decision softened in its delivery by months of confusing statements.

"I don't think Bush ever really understood what Chrétien was saying," one informed diplomat said this week. "Somehow that helped keep Canada out of the target zone."

Much to Canada's relief, French President Jacques Chirac occupies most of that bull's eye. By letting anti-war sentiments morph into transparent anti-Americanism, France and Chirac are testing bonds forged during the U.S. independence struggle.

No one believes Washington will be satisfied with stripping french from fries. A Bush administration that delights in mocking the impotence of what Donald Rumsfeld dismisses as Old Europe will now seize every opportunity to torment a tormentor.

That's just one factor playing in Canada's favour.

As a military mismatch gives way to peace that could stretch resources as well as patience, the U.S. will need its traditional friends as much as it will need institutions damaged in a headstrong rush to war. Canada is on that suddenly shortened list and, despite its depleted military and miserly international development assistance, still wields disproportionate influence in the world community.

True, Ottawa's attempt to bridge the gap between the willing and the unwilling was laughed off by Washington as a Boy Scout initiative in a grown-up game. But more important, that effort was judged as well-intentioned and no worse than benign.

It's a sure bet the federal government will find ample opportunity in the post-war period to reinforce that constructive role by supporting Washington in ways consistent with this country's values and history. It will help, as it is in Afghanistan, by freeing U.S. troops for more onerous duties. It will help in peacekeeping, in reconstruction and in the intricate work of building the machinery necessary for the freedom and democracy Bush says he will bring a region that knows nothing of either.

All these measures share the common cause of restoring whatever confidence was lost by Chrétien's decision to keep Canada at home. Their success largely depends on how long the war lasts and the health of the American psyche when it ends.

Those are some of the imponderables in a dangerously fluid situation. If prolonged offshore war leads to renewed onshore terrorism, the U.S. will retreat into a fortress, a once undefended border will be aggressively defended and open-door immigration will make this country a threat.

Canadians know those realities come with the territory and could only have been mitigated, not fundamentally altered, by marching off to Bush's war. Security, not trade, will always be the U.S. border priority, and that priority rises and falls on the tide of events Canada cannot fully control.

Still, Canada enjoys a measure of goodwill badly undervalued by tabloid television journalists and by Cassandras convinced that every foolish backbench comment, every awkward moment between very different leaders, every modest assertion of sovereignty will send the relationship spiralling into the diplomatic dumpster. It simply isn't so.

That analysis ignores that politicians in both countries will change, that the U.S. is not a monolith with a single opinion on contentious issues and that trade is also important to a country with a considerable resource appetite. Even more significant, it ignores the trust that develops when so much is shared.

In Graves' surveys, that trust surfaces in ways that have never been more important. When Americans look north they are confident their security is protected; when they look south to Mexico, they are not.

We, of course, have our own view. An increasingly confident country, a country now finding its distinctiveness in policies, not in symbols, a country certain and determined it won't be swallowed by the U.S., sees no contradiction in economic integration and independent political action.

"It is a more mature, less insecure, sense of ourselves," Graves says.

It is also a gamble that turns on the goodwill of a powerful friend. So far, that gamble seems low-risk.

Preoccupied with toppling a thug, the United States is handling what might have been a continental crisis with comforting equanimity. There is no reason to think border security is tighter than war makes prudent. There is no particular sense of increased strain between countries that continue to manage differences.

There is also no guarantee events won't exacerbate those differences. To minimize the dangers, Canada must do a much better job of explaining itself to a U.S. audience that extends beyond politicians and diplomats. An insistent reminder is required that Canadians fought and died in Afghanistan, that Canadian ships are protecting U.S. ships attacking Iraq, that trade is two-way and worth nearly $2 billion a day.

Those are the nuts and bolts of a relationship that is evolving in more subtle ways than Chrétien's blunt rejection of war in Iraq suggests. Having just gotten over the disappointment that the 20th century didn't belong to Canada, this country is just beginning to enjoy a new dream.

In it, a strong, sovereign nation is free to make decisions that annoy but do not permanently offend a dominant partner.

This week, Chrétien tested that concept by making a decision many predicted Canada could not afford.

If the Prime Minister is wrong, if Canada cannot take an independent, deeply held position on war without paying a disproportionate price, then an abrupt wake-up call is inevitable.

If not, Canada is in the first hours of the kind of sleep that refreshes and ultimately restores.

Additional articles by James Travers

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