By Cary Fraser
Cary Fraser teaches African and African American Studies and History at Penn State University
We will return to the final installation of Wazir Mohammed’s series on rice and globalization next week.
When Barack Obama is sworn in as the first African American President of the United States tomorrow, the United States, like Canada, will have a Head of State who is a person of colour. In 1999, Canada appointed Chinese-Canadian Adrienne Clarkson as its Governor-General. She was succeeded in 2005 by Haitian-Canadian Michaelle Jean. These developments signal the emergence of a new era in North America, a move towards a politics of inclusion that has allowed individuals from historically disadvantaged communities to become visible symbols of leadership in multicultural democracy. While Canada’s earlier accomplishment did not receive the level of international attention that surrounded Obama’s election, it was no less significant. These events are part of the ongoing saga of two societies which have shared the North American mainland but the political trajectories of which have provided some interesting contrasts over the course of history.
One key difference between Canada and the United States has been in the area of foreign policy after 1945. Canadian foreign policy has defined the country as a junior partner in the North Atlantic alliance under American leadership, but Canada has often pursued policies that distinguish it from the United States. In the Americas, Canada’s maintenance of diplomatic and commercial ties with Cuba following the 1959 revolution has signaled a willingness to maintain some distance from American policy. Its progressive domestic social policies, particularly health care, are another indicator of differences in political culture. Just as important, after 1945, both societies were reshaped by the struggle for a politics of inclusion for minority groups in each society – African Americans and Francophone Canadians. While the American civil rights struggle had garnered much greater international attention, the Canadian struggle was just as significant in national and hemispheric terms. It is perhaps coincidental that Barack Obama’s rise to the presidency has followed Michaelle Jean as the head of state in Canada. However, it is also important to recognise that Barack Obama’s election has followed by some 40 years that of Pierre Trudeau, the French Canadian Prime Minister whose influence in reshaping post-1945 Canada was extraordinary. He was elected Prime Minister of Canada in 1968, less than three weeks after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. His roots in the Catholic intelligentsia, his career as a professor of law before entering national politics, and his early involvement in the social democratic movement, as well as his Francophone origins, did not prove to be insurmountable barriers to election to the highest office in Canada. His election led to the establishment of the pluralist and progressive social contract that has redefined Canadian politics and society. Like Obama, Trudeau was an “outsider” who became a transformative figure in Canadian politics; Obama might be well served by looking to Trudeau’s experience as he confronts the challenges that will face him once he assumes office.
Canadian politics has been ahead of American politics, as in the instances of its health care system, the appointment of Adrienne Clarkson and Michaelle Jean, and the election of Pierre Trudeau. It is perhaps time for American leaders to pay closer attention to the temper and direction of Canadian politics in developing strategies for shaping American domestic and foreign policies in this new century. In the past few years, the Bush administration’s cultivation of close ties with the Conservative party governments in Canada has been an interesting and problematic indicator of ideological convergence across the border. Nonetheless, the policies set in place under Trudeau continue to be relevant for the Obama administration since they have remained durable even in an era of Conservative governance.
Canadian foreign policy strategy also has some interesting lessons for American policymakers. Canada presents itself as a society anchored in a pluralist vision of the “West” – acknowledging the multiple European intellectual and cultural streams that have influenced its development but remaining a member of the Commonwealth group which links the countries that emerged out of the British empire in the 20th century. By virtue of its engagement with this post-imperial grouping of countries from Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean, Canada is more directly aware of the anti-colonial currents that continue to invigorate the politics of these regions. Canadian involvement with the countries of the Americas – where the imperial experience under both Europe and America continues to shape the region’s politics – has also been a source of some sensitivity to the currents that animate the politics of the non-European world and the relationship with the “West.” This was evident in the mid-1990s when Canada was supportive of the restoration of Jean-Bertrand Aristide as President of Haiti. On the other hand, Canada’s tepid response to the overthrow of Aristide in 2004 – which also found support from the United States and France – and its current position on Haiti have raised legitimate concerns about the direction of Canadian foreign policy and its implications for the region. In this regard, Trudeau’s legacy of distancing Canada from the Republican ideological agenda has proven to be farsighted given the intellectual disarray that has overtaken American conservatism under George W. Bush.
For the Obama administration, it would be useful to refurbish the image of America as a product of the earlier anti-colonial struggle of the late 18th and early 19th centuries – the period of the Atlantic Revolutions that led to the independence of the majority of states in the Americas, as well as Haiti in the Caribbean. The Bush administration embrace of an “imperial mission” in Iraq has done enormous damage to the image and substance of American foreign policy. The American imperial project represents a rejection of the anti-colonial struggle that defined the creation of the country. Barack Obama, as the grandson of a British detainee in the struggle for Kenyan independence, may have the credibility to revitalize an alternative vision of American foreign policy rooted in opposition to colonial rule. His predecessor, John F. Kennedy, as the scion of a prominent Irish-American Catholic family, was very effective in articulating rhetorical support for an end to European empire – in part, because of the Irish nationalist struggle for independence from Britain in the 20th century. The American support for “self-determination” was also a key plank in Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy strategy during and after World War I. Thus, there is precedent in American history and foreign policy from which to articulate a principled opposition to imperialism.
To decisively break with the Bush administration’s foreign policy, the Obama administration need only clearly indicate its willingness to abandon the politics of imperial/colonial rule. One key signal would be to close the prison camp and torture centre at the Guantanamo base in Cuba that has become a symbol of the dark undercurrents that shaped the Bush administration’s imperial adventure in Iraq. Moreover, the return of the base to Cuba would provide a powerful signal of America’s willingness to seek a new era in inter-American relations – as Franklin D. Roosevelt did with his Good Neighbour Policy in the midst of the Great Depression by withdrawing American occupation forces from Haiti. The restoration of Cuban sovereignty at Guantanamo would signal that America is willing to recognize and engage with other American states on the basis of respect for national sovereignty. It would also bring an end to the Cold War in the Caribbean and open the way for an end to the American trade embargo against Cuba.
As Canada has historically shown, there are productive alternatives to the pursuit of imperial strategies in inter-American relations; the United States under an Obama administration would be well served by following some of these Canadian precedents.