Thursday, March 27, 2003

Having attempted to explain Canada to Americans before, I feel compelled to respond to the blogosphere's flurry of interest in the recent remarks by US ambassador to Canada Paul Cellucci. Four prominent bloggers--Daniel Drezner, Henry Farrell, Matthew Iglesias and Kevin Drum--have all concluded, apparently based on a Globe and Mail report on Cellucci's comments, that Canada was threatened, in a crude and insulting yet unspecific way, with retaliation over its lack of support for the Iraq war. All four appear to have completely misconstrued the situation, partly by relying on a single news report; a second account of the Celluci speech provides some extra context.

To begin with, this little dust-up actually follows a completely familiar pattern. Every decade or so, US-Canadian relations enter a strained period, the American ambassador eventually delivers a mild, diplomatic rebuke, and Canadian nationalists hit the roof in response, crying, "intimidation", "infringement of sovereignty", and so on. (The Globe and Mail report hints at this pattern, although it suggests, implausibly, that the current conflict is unprecedentedly serious.) None of it should be taken terribly seriously--any more than the obnoxious remarks by Canadian officials about which Celluci was complaining. It's merely the way two very old friends let off steam at each other.

Secondly, it's clear from the National Post report that Cellucci was not making any veiled threats regarding Canadian non-cooperation with the American war effort. Token military support would no doubt have been welcomed by Washington, but it would hardly have made much material difference. (It should be noted that Canada did contribute to the Afghanistan campaign.) Even Canada's French-style diplomatic hostility to the Iraq war is at most a minor irritant to Washington, on a par with, say, the softwood lumber dispute.

The real issue--the one about which Cellucci issued his veiled threat--is that of "homeland security". For various reasons, the Canadian government has at times dragged its feet in dealing with terrorist groups, with the result that Canada has come to be viewed as something of a haven, and even a staging ground, for anti-US terorist cells. (Recall that Ahmed Ressam was caught importing bombing materials across the border from Canada in 1999.) As long as the border between the US and Canada remains wide open, American border security is in practice no tighter than Canadian border security, and Canada's generous immigration laws and occasionally lax attitude towards certain violent groups is thus of direct concern to US officials. Hence Cellucci's remark that "[f]or Canada the priority is trade, for us the priority is security....Security trumps trade."

I predict that the Canadian government will duly heed Cellucci's warning, as it's clearly in the interest of both sides for it to do so.

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