John Chuckman

John Manley, prominent Liberal politician in Canada, has shown a stunning lack of judgment in chairing a private group proposing a new security-economic regime for Canada, Mexico, and the United States.

One hopes the proposal is not a feeler for something quietly supported by Paul Martin’s government. We do know that Mr. Martin’s goal of improving relations with George Bush has been a bit of a runaway train, gone off the tracks. The Prime Minister is almost certainly looking for ways to right the engine and fire up the boilers.

I could dwell on the difficulty of anyone’s improving relations with a man of Mr. Bush’s remarkably unpleasant character. After all, Canada has produced no more affable or charming politician than former Prime Minister Jean Chretien, and Mr. Chretien it seems could not entirely disguise a sense of repulsion. I am sure he did not greatly miss his cancelled invitation to share charred cow, root beer, and sermons from the Book of Revelations down in Crawford, Texas.

Of course, no matter how unpleasant the current President is, Canada must have a decent relationship with America. Geography dictates this, but so does Canada’s basic national character. Canada does not make enemies, which is why so many Americans travelling in Europe and other places wear Maple Leaf patches on their backpacks or pins in their lapels.

Criticism of Manley’s scheme is possible on many levels, but my chief criticism is that the authors simply do not understand that no country can make a binding deal of this nature with the United States. It is simply impossible. Yes, America’s government might well sign an agreement, but the agreement would shortly prove worthless, except in just those portions with visceral appeal to Americans. This conclusion comes neither from prejudice nor mordant humor but from having lived half my life in each country and being a serious student of history.

The point of the scheme is to avoid the massive back-ups in trade and travel that occurred in the aftermath of 9/11 by creating what would be effectively a single border for the countries of North America. Canada and Mexico would give up their independent decision-making regarding circumstances of entry, including for refugees, an area of international affairs where Canada has been far more generous and humane than the United States in past decades. There is even provision for educational efforts to promote a sense of North American identity.

My most enduring memory of crossing the Canadian border is of a gruff, unpleasant American border guard seizing a banana from a man travelling into the United States. Traffic was heavy and slow, allowing us the chance to view this little passion play. The man’s car was parked, having been selected for detailed search. With nothing found amiss, the guard seized a banana from the man’s lunch on the car’s front seat and marched truculently back to his office with it. His reason for doing so? The banana didn’t have a sticker. Now, I know not all Americans are like this guard, but enough of them are to heavily color the national character.

Former Governor Weld of Massachusetts, who also sat on the trilateral panel, called the proposal daring and spoke against those who would “hide their heads in the sand.” Well, all I could think of is American border guards stationed alongside Canadians in places like Nova Scotia, seizing bananas from lunch bags. Governor Weld is oblivious to the real concerns of his country’s northern neighbor which are more about Canadian heads being shoved into the sand than anyone hiding there. But then Weld is a conservative former governor from the same state that gave Canada the most obnoxious American Ambassador ever appointed, another former conservative governor, Mr. Cellucci, a man with no grace who has specialized in travelling around Canada telling Canadians what their policies should be. His recall wasn’t requested surely only because the government already felt intense displeasure from Washington over its decision not to contribute troops to the killing fields of Iraq.

The panel’s scheme is a vision of Fortress America scowling at the world with its two small neighboring principalities huddled in the shadows of outer works or pens under the massive walls. The scheme is sweetened for Canada and Mexico by offering supposed new certainties in trade access to the world’s largest national market. The outer works supposedly have open doors through the looming walls.

No matter what Canada and Mexico do to prepare against it, should there be another major terrorist-style attack on the United States, precisely the same pattern of behavior is to be expected. America has behaved irrationally for three solid years since 9/11, and no treaty, no agreement, or no arrangement will prevent a re-kindling of America’s blast-furnace rage at its rich gated community again having been rudely broken into by “some of them.” I recall an engraved wooden sign some years ago in the window of a luxurious land-yacht at a trailer park in Arizona, “We don’t call 9-1-1,” with a drawing of crossed smoking pistols. The sign was funny, but funny only in its succinctly capturing an ugly truth about the lawless, uncivil character of many Americans.

It was Americans themselves who let the 9/11 gang into their country with visas and permitted them to study such arcane matters as learning to be airline pilots. 9/11 was nothing more than “blowback” from unsavory CIA operations in Afghanistan and other places, yet Americans never stopped talking about Canada as a haven for terrorists, and, to this day, American intelligence officials and others have not been held accountable for what they so clearly permitted to happen. But this failure represents a real thread running through the American character: no one is responsible for anything, unless he or she happens to be a foreigner or someone from America’s more undesirable classes.

Government in the United States is a kind of loosely organized chaos, which is how Americans have always wanted to be governed. No matter what the source of authority, the American system allows for exceptions, bending of the rules, or scholastic-like quibbling over definitions. This pliability about rules doesn’t exclude frequent bouts of brutal excess in enforcing the very same rules. Bush, as Governor of Texas, ferociously enforced the same rules about drugs he flouted for years as a feckless rich drifter.

America presents an odd face in its dealings abroad, odd at least to countries like Canada where respect for order and good government is deeply valued. America’s is a Picasso-like image, seeming to be a single face, but with perspectives going off in several directions. The noted American historian, Page Smith, observed the characteristic time and again in America’s national history and described it loosely as “schizophrenia.”

For Canadians the most obvious recent examples come under the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and the latter North American Free Trade Treaty. As most Canadians are well aware, the U.S., whenever it has suited its interests, simply has ignored the authority of bilateral panels created by these treaties to settle trade disputes. The story of Canadian softwood lumber is only the most extreme in a long series of disagreements. You could write a book on the subject. The U.S. lost its arguments, time after time, in every international dispute-settling institution, and it has been told it is violating the rules of the WTO. Yet the matter remains unresolved.

Think of the comic-opera ending to the recent decision to open borders again to Canadian beef. A single infected cow had caused the best part of two years’ hardship for Canadian beef exporters. Any country is entitled to protect the health of its citizens under the rules of trade, but America’s action went well beyond that goal. It is after all Americans who always say it is “the science” that should count in matters like global warming, but the science here supports Canada which made big changes in its beef industry, not to mention the honest reporting of the infection in the first place. Can there be any doubt in the course of these events that more than one animal with mad-cow disease has been quietly shot and buried on the dusty plains of Texas or Arizona?

A judge in Billings, Montana, decides for local ranchers who stand on no principle other than protecting themselves from the falling prices of returned competition. How on earth does a district court have the ability to derail a matter relating to international treaties? Yet, this event precisely captures the confused American concept of government and the country’s inherent inability to make and scrupulously keep international agreements.

There is nothing unique in the Canadian experience. Everyone who has signed economic treaties with the U.S. has been treated the same way. Mexico, for example, one of whose most important crops is avocados, was barred, under one pretense or another, from exporting avocados into the U.S. for years after implementing the North American Free Trade Treaty. Mexico’s crop is less costly than that raised by American farmers and would have serious economic impact, but as anyone who has studied first-year economics knows, that is precisely the kind of competitive effect that free trade is supposed to generate.

You don’t need to look only at economic treaties. The Bush administration was perfectly content to turn its back on a sound anti-ballistic missile treaty when it felt like pursuing its new failing-every-test anti-ballistic missile system intended to swell defense contractors’ profits and keep the Cold War paranoia pot stirred. No knowledgeable person expects any so-called rogue state to have the ability to launch an ICBM at the United States for fifteen years. Right now, anyone wanting to harm the U.S. with an atomic device need only bring a fishing boat into port on any of its coasts.

The American government defied the U.N. over Iraq, even though its membership in this organization includes many important treaty obligations. The invasion was just about as illegal and without justification as Hitler’s invasion of Poland. U.N. inspectors could have indefinitely maintained surveillance to keep Iraq free of weapons Bush falsely claimed were there. The cost would have been a fraction of invasion, and one hundred thousand civilians need not have died. And what can we say of a United States that unilaterally ignores its treaty obligations to pay U.N. dues, demanding instead changes in the organization to its own liking? Or what of the appointment of a new American U.N. ambassador, John Bolton, who for years has preached contempt and utter diplomatic ignorance of the institution?

There is no higher authority in the U.S. than the Constitution, a document Americans have been trained to regard almost with religious awe, and yet Americans time and time again violate the principles and clear intentions of this document. Its exalted Bill of Rights was simply ignored for the best part of two centuries where Black Americans were concerned.

You are not supposed to face double jeopardy under the American Constitution, the Founders being well aware of horribly abusive practices in some courts of Europe, yet a form of double jeopardy is practiced every day in America. Accused persons tried under the criminal law are often tried again for precisely the same matter under civil law, often with the opposite verdict. I understand the lawyers’ technical explanations of this, but a person found innocent under the tougher standards of criminal law should be presumed innocent of the same charge under the less-demanding standards of the civil law. Not so in America. Any unbiased observer could only call it a form of double jeopardy, scholastically redefined.

What of America’s penchant for insane law suits? Does this reflect anything more than willingness to seize a chance at a big jackpot without a sense of responsibility, good citizenship, or decency?

America, most importantly, is a signatory to weighty treaties outlawing torture and mistreatment of prisoners. Yet today the CIA quietly runs regular airline flights delivering prisoners into the hands of torturers. The U.S. military operates a small gulag of hideous prisons in Cuba, Iraq, and Afghanistan whose whole purpose is the deliberate mistreatment of prisoners and where prisoners receive none of the rights recognized in the Constitution, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, and the Geneva Accords. Thousands of prisoners simply disappeared in the deserts of Afghanistan with no explanation.

No, a nation which behaves as the United States does is incapable of signing a binding international agreement without afterward picking through its terms for just those parts serving its own changing interests.

Furthermore, I suspect that America’s obsession with security is going to fade. There are many reasons for believing this, but the chief one is that the costs are wildly out of proportion to the risks. During the height of the Cold War, America’s government gradually, quietly came around to the view that building a huge chain of well-equipped bomb shelters was not worth the cost.