16 July 2019
US-Canada relations have come under great strain in recent months as Donald Trump engages in belligerent rhetoric on trade issues. Photo: Bloomberg
US-Canada relations have come under great strain in recent months as Donald Trump engages in belligerent rhetoric on trade issues. Photo: Bloomberg

Canada’s difficult choices in the Trump era

After Donald Trump took office as US president in January last year, the once brotherly ties between the United States and Canada have turned increasingly sour, with the two countries drifting apart and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gradually emerging as a key leader of the liberal world.

The relations between Washington and Ottawa recently hit a new low as Trump has threatened to kick Canada out of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Intriguingly though, while many are concerned about the changing ties between the two nations, some actually regard the current downward trajectory in the US-Canadian relationship as an opportunity for the Canadians to enhance their sense of national identity.

Since its establishment, Canada has been walking a careful line between the US and Britain.

In the realm of international relations studies, there is a “constructivism” view that the US-Canadian ties are a textbook proof of how two neighboring powers can co-exist peacefully based on the mutual presumption that neither side would pose any national security threat to each other.

To support their theory, constructivist academics would often point out as an example that neither the US nor Canada has stationed troops along their shared border over the years. 

However, in my opinion, such constructivist presumption doesn’t necessarily reflect the whole truth, as the US and Canada haven’t been always on good terms with each other, and the two did go to a brief border war in the past.

And in recent years, there are signs that the two nations are beginning to re-fortify themselves against each other along their shared border.

Moreover, in everyday life, the Canadians have always been trying hard to differentiate themselves from the Americans by pitching their peace-loving image as opposed to the belligerent and provocative posture adopted by their neighbor.

For example, many official posters printed by the Canadian government often highlight the theme of how nicely their indigenous peoples are treated by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

In contrast, the brutal image of American cowboys and their suppression and massacres of indigenous peoples in the past have become deeply entrenched in the popular mind.

Even though people rarely associate the Canadians with battles, Canadian soldiers in fact fought bravely and contributed enormously to the final victory of the western allies in the two World Wars.

Yet over the years, the Canadian government has been painstakingly promoting the notion that the only reason for the government of Canada to go war is to fight totalitarianism, whereas the motives behind Washington’s decisions to send troops to fight on foreign soil are a lot more complicated.

In the meantime, while many people are having the impression that Canada is a highly pluralistic society that places overriding emphasis on cultural diversity, there is a prevailing notion that new immigrants in the US are often subjected to forced assimilation into the so-called “melting pot”.

The general impression that Canada is a lot more tolerant towards foreign cultures and ethnic minorities, as well as its image of only going war to combat totalitarianism, may probably explain why some people would rather emigrate to Canada than to the US.

In March 2000, a Canadian beer brewery ran a TV commercial in which an actor known as Joe takes the podium and addresses a crowd, saying that “I believe in peacekeeping, not policing. Diversity, not assimilation.”

Even though the actor, throughout the commercial, didn’t directly refer to the US, everybody knew that it was aimed to strike a chord among viewers by touching on the fundamentally different values embraced by the Canadians and the Americans.

The commercial quickly became a big hit in Canada, and many believed the person behind the ad was trying to mock the US and its self-proclaimed role as the “global policeman”.

The problem, however, was that despite Canada’s strong sense of self-identity and its centuries-old bonds with Britain, the country had no choice but to lean towards the US economically as the British Empire was falling apart in the wake of the Second World War.

As a result, the US has been Canada’s largest trading partner for many decades.

In 2017, trade volume between the two countries reached US$600 billion. No wonder many Americans would often joke that Canada is the “51st state” of the US.

If in the worst case scenario, Washington does wage a trade war against Ottawa, the Canadians would have a difficult decision to make: either continuing to remain effectively a vassal state of the US or enhancing Canada’s presence in the international community and blazing its own new trail.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept 11

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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