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The U.S. relationship: It's not them, it's us

By David Dyment, Citizen Special
December 9, 2010

The following article appeared in the Ottawa Citizen, Vancouver Sun, Montreal Gazette, Regina Leader-Post, Calgary Herald and other papers.

We have an "inferiority complex" according to a cable from the U.S. embassy in Ottawa, released by WikiLeaks recently. We are said to complain "That the U.S. pays far less attention" to us than we pay to them, and that we carry a chip on our shoulder because we are "condemned to always play 'Robin' to the U.S. 'Batman'. "

Maybe we do suffer from the inferiority complex of a junior partner not being paid attention to. A plausible explanation is a colonial mentality that speaks to our identity being incomplete, and that we identify with another larger country instead of our own, and certainly in addition to our own.

This can lead to and reinforce feelings of inferiority as confirmed by a Pew poll that recently found that, while the world loves Canada, Canadians doubt their worth.

Lawrence Martin, in the Globe and Mail, describes the phenomenon and its hopeful trajectory this way: "For a long time, Canada's colonial heritage fed its dependency mentality. ... But with maturity, the sense of self-doubt and subordination has diminished."

A colonial mentality has some of us wanting to go into the world as America's best friend. This is much more a need we feel than a request being made of us. This mentality seems to lead to wild swings between superiority and inferiority that fuel, and manifest in, our left-nationalists and right-continentalists.

It's as if we have a victim mentality in our relationship with the Americans and we do not recognize our own strength.

But if we need the Americans, they also need us. Canada is the largest export market for 37 of the 50 U.S. states. The value of our two-way trading relationship is about $2 billion a day. The value of U.S. vehicle exports to Canada is larger than its total exports to any European country.

Total U.S. exports to Canada are larger than exports to Mexico and Japan combined. The U.S. is highly dependent on foreign energy, and we supply them with more energy than any other country: 40 per cent of the natural gas used in California; one-in-10 cars in the U.S. has its tank full of Canadian gas. All of this speaks to the power we have in our relationship with the U.S.

We are much less victim than we are partner: more a muskox, than a mouse, in bed with an elephant. Let's move past our fear of and longing for the U.S. -- rather than laying down ideological creeds lifting up Canadian needs.

In North America, and in the wider world, let's stop being preoccupied with imagining what the U.S. wants or doesn't want of us. We are engaging a vast, self-absorbed and segmented neighbour. It is a country that doesn't think about Canada. And when it does, its power and interests are diffused.

The handling of our possible participation in the American-led invasion of Iraq is a good example of how the continentalist right and the nationalist left faced a challenge in our relationship with the U.S. The former wanted us to go to Iraq to fight with the Americans and the latter said "No," but did so with such anger as to undermine our relationship.

As Janice Stein and Eugene Lang show, in their award-winning book The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar, the U.S. was not overly concerned whether we went or not. What they did not like, and what diminished our relationship, was that we said "No" with such a string of insults.

Neither of these approaches was in our interest. Both reflect a mindset that makes us swing between a desire to please and truculence. We fixate on whether our position will bother the U.S. without rationally considering their response; ascribing to the Americans implausible retributions.

A unique contribution can be the basis for Canada's engagement in the world. We are more effective and ironically more helpful to our leading ally when we imagine ourselves less fully as a junior partner. It's not the U.S. that is the problem; it's how we think about the U.S. Our relationship isn't so much about them as it is about us.

David Dyment is a senior research associate in the Centre on North American Politics and Society at Carleton and author of "Doing the Continental: A New Canadian-American Relationship".