Who could blame Paul Martin for deciding to run against the Americans? So many others have done it successfully that anti-Americanism in politics has become one of those "Canadian values" that Martin loves chattering about. Facing the possibility of a swift end to his career as prime minister, Martin last week did what Canadian politicians usually do when in trouble. He maligned the Americans, denouncing them as unfair traders and poor environmentalists.
Like every reader of the business pages, he knew that the lumber issue is more complicated than the front pages say. He also knew that the U.S. has a better record on the environment than Canada. But those arguments don't make headlines or sound bites. It's slanging the U.S. that turns you into the hero of certain Canadians. Some of our citizens are so crazed by anti-American sentiment that they will consider Martin's thoughtless opinions both intelligent and brave.
Sir John A. Macdonald played the anti-American card, and in more recent times it's been a favourite of several prime ministers. It was the sharpest arrow in the quill of John Diefenbaker and almost certainly prolonged his career. Pierre Trudeau put it to clever use, and the guy Martin sent into retirement, Jean Chretien, acknowledged that using it always helped him. It's now so routine that a prime minister who does not badmouth Americans looks like some kind of sellout.
Besides, Martin was sure the Americans wouldn't mind. Most Americans wouldn't notice and those who did wouldn't care. By tradition, the Americans look the other way when Canadian nationalist politicians beat up the U.S. during an election campaign. After the election Washington and Ottawa go back to running the continent together.
In the early 1960s, in a dispute with the Kennedy administration over defence, Diefenbaker denounced American imperialism on every possible occasion. Canadian journalists made it seem Washington and Ottawa were furious with each other. A few years later I mentioned that raging controversy to one of Kennedy's assistants, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the historian, who had been in the White House at the time. It turned out that he hadn't even heard a mention of trouble with Canada.
That was typical of our joint history. Until this week, the U.S.-Canada relationship depended on parallel lines of argument that never met: Pompous fury in Ottawa, aloof indifference in Washington. To understand how much recent events have changed our situation, consider Hugh Segal's column in the Post on Tuesday. As a vastly experienced Conservative politician, Segal has often seen the U.S. shrug off America-baiting; clearly, he expected to see that happen again. He rightly said Martin's views were unbecoming a mature country but "To their credit, U.S. ambassador David Wilkins and White House spokespersons have refused to be drawn into the Liberals' games."
He spoke too soon. Only a few hours after readers finished Segal's column, Wilkins appeared at a Canadian Club meeting in Ottawa and surprised everyone by announcing, implicitly, that the Americans were mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. A normally affable gentleman from South Carolina, he suggested that anti-American chest-thumping "may be smart election-year politics" but perhaps we should remember that the U.S. is Canada's best friend and Number One trading partner. Wilkins even put forward the suggestion that Canadians leave the U.S. out of our election campaigns. (As his study of Canada progresses he will realize that this is a radical as well as outlandish idea.) He made some similar points in a less-publicized speech on Nov. 14, when he said that anti-American politics could have a toxic effect on Canada's relations with the United States. "If you listen to some of the rhetoric out there it's like the greatest enemy we face is each other," he said.
He also argued that "Canada never has to tear down the United States of America to build itself up." Actually, he could be wrong there. The record shows that dwelling on the failures of the Americans is our favourite way of making ourselves feel accomplished and virtuous. It may be an emotional necessity.
Martin's clumsy attempt to use it has had results that might have been predicted by a careful student of the Bush Administration. George W. Bush has often shown that he doesn't enjoy answering hostility with geniality. Possibly his American Administration actually cares what Canada thinks. That's what we've claimed to want all along but we may soon find ourselves ruefully considering a famous piece of folk wisdom: Beware of having your wishes come true.