Thompson on the Asymetry of American-Canadian Relations

The Wilson Centre for Canadian History was privileged to have John H Thompson speak today on “Managing in the Bush Leagues: The Canada-US Relationship since 2001.” thompson.gifThompson’s lively talk was marked by his personal reflections on what it’s like to be an advising Canadian, one who has moved permanently to the US and on his perspective as a student of United States – Canadian relations from one living in the heart of the beast.
His pithy presentation was enfragranced with a number of well chosen editorial cartoons from both Canadian and American papers and by a couple of rather loaded quotations. His talk was loosely framed by an exploration of the relationship between countries during the presidency of George W Bush, and introduced by a short retrospective of relations between Canadian Prime Ministers and Presidents from Mackenzie King.

Thompson highlights the asymmetry of the relationship summed up in Jeffrey Simpson’s September 2001 observation that “Americans know and care the square root of squat about Canada.” This is not to poke fun at American ignorance in the vein of Rick Mercer’s ‘Talking to Americans,” but rather to state the obvious, that there are very few reasons that would actually motivate Americans to have any greater regard for their neighbour to the North. Resource and military factors aside, he states “Americans and benevolently ignorant of Canada. Canadians are malevolently well informed about the US.” And this pretty much sums it up. thompsonpodium.gifWe may well be joined at the hip geographically, economically, but on the American radar, we simply don’t figure more prominently than an annoying gnat at times and or a diplomatic afterthought.

To support his argument, Thompson cited the number of occasions in the American press that slights rated high in the Canadian national consciousness went unmentioned. Whether it was references to the Canadian president by sitting presidents or even presidential-hopefuls such as Barak Obama, what makes headlines in Canada infrequently warrants mention in the US. To support the contention that we frame our identity through our animosity towards Americans, he demonstrated that Canadian editorial cartoons rarely present Americans and particularly American presidents a in a positive light.
This is not to say that relations, as demonstrated by the court of public perception, have been static. FDR for example was more widely seen as a heroic and positive leader in the Canadian press, and at times relations between the leaders of our two countries have verged on the cordial (Carter and Trudeau for example). However, Thompson asserts that possibly the most effective relationship was that between Jean Chretien and George W Bush based on an established distance between the countries and didn’t attempt to pretend as though there was a bilateral respect.

He summarized his talk with the advice that there is a great paradox in the Imperial presidency of George W. Bush: he has made himself more important to the nature of the relationship between his country and Canada (or for that matter any other country in the world), but that the summit diplomacy where this would make a difference actually has little or no relevance to the world in which we find ourselves today. Additionally, (and responding to others advice) Canada should wake up and realize that it cannot seek to manage its relations with the US and that any Prime Minister or hopeful that promises to do such is either misguided or mendacious. Finally he cautions that Canada should look out for its national interests and not suffer under any delusion that nations have any friends.

Responding to questions following the talk, Thompson went to great length to affirm that the US medical system is not superior to the Canadian and that by being self-critical we play into the hands of conservative attempts to discredit the Canadian system.

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