One test of the Liberal Party’s willingness to renew itself would be a clear leadership position on Canada’s relationship with the United States. No other relationship is as important to us or—with the possible exception of Afghanistan—is in as much trouble. The Liberal Party’s position on this question once distinguished it from adversaries on both the left and right and, to a large measure, under the leadership of Laurier, King, St. Laurent and Pearson established it as modern Canada’s first truly national party. Today, this role is open for debate.
So far, the Liberals have addressed this challenge indirectly, spinning Michael Ignatieff’s academic rolodex and White House ties. Recently, they invited Derek Burney, a retired senior public servant and diplomat, to address their Montreal thinker’s conference with a speech entitled, “Working toward a thinner border.” Unfortunately, his big idea—a Bi-national Border Commission—understates the nature of the problem and, if implemented, would make the task of thinking clearly about our relationship more difficult.
Burney acknowledged that the border is steadily thickening and that American concern for security is not going to go away: “It will not be otherwise in 2017.” However, in introducing his solution, he simply asserts that we need to restore a “healthy balance between legitimate security concerns and our mutual need for smooth access.” As a mission statement for his Bi-national Commission, this is wholly Canadian and, therefore, lopsided.
The United States government is in no position, or under any comparable pressure, to strike such a balance. Security practices can be streamlined, but they can’t be watered down in the name of freer trade.
The terms of reference for the Bi-national Commission are bejewelled with the active verbs of a good Throne Speech: “empowering” the commission to “streamline” customs and entry provisions, “remove” blockages, “spearhead” coherent rationalization of standards and regulations, “examine” the merits of a common external tariff and, finally, “intensify” police collaboration. However, this proposed re-organization of the mandates of the Canadian Embassy and numerous powerful ministries in both governments doesn’t promise to bring any resolution to the continuing inclination of elected politicians to put up protections for domestic jobs and industries. It states flatly that the commission would be set up in ways “consistent with Parliamentary and Congressional prerogatives.”
Canadian Liberals will not impress by only suggesting they can manage the relationship better than Stephen Harper. Harper has thrown himself at its ad-hoc management problems over and above any other foreign policy interest. Nevertheless, he’s left a world of room strategically and he’s exposed to everyone the growing limitations of the status quo. (On procurement he was only able to secure access to the last 10 percent of the US Recovery Acts funds. His last success with George Bush was to harmonize the regulation of jelly beans.)
The Liberal party might address genuinely liberal ideas, democratizing rather than bureaucratizing the issue. Instead of leaving it to a commission to blue sky the options, why not take up—and better—the vision of the European Union? Why not work toward closing the real gap between our two countries and the barrier to every important continental challenge: the absence of shared democratic accountability for the conduct of federal government?
At the start of a fresh millennium, why not stop saying never and start asking how?
If you find this piece intriguing or just incomplete, I round out where we could be going in my article, “A More Perfect Union” in Maisonneuve, winter edition, 2009.