When the Presidential and vice-Presidential hopefuls talk foreign policy, they look every which way --- towards the Middle East, Russia, Europe, Asia or Africa, but they largely ignore our own backyard.
In the next decades of the 21st Century, our policymakers will need different priorities. When looking for our closest allies, we may well need to look away from current entanglements in unfortunate, far away places and towards a stronger relationship with countries --- notably Canada --- with whom we share so much.
This requires some understanding of where we are today. The breathless talk of an “end of history” and inevitable democratization that accompanied the fall of the Soviet Union should be swept aside by now. Instead we need to understand both a greater diversity in national systems and, increasingly, a trend towards ever more authoritarian regimes.
Anyone who has studied history should understand this. Authoritarianism has been the default mode for millennia and seems likely to remain so in the foreseeable future.
Twenty years ago it was possible to see in Russia and even in China, signs of a transformation towards democracy and a civil society. But clearly Putinism has produced something of a legal dictatorship in Russia, a downsized Soviet Union dressed in democratic garb. China seemed headed towards a more civil, less dictatorial state --- before Tiananmen ended that dream. The recent Olympics seemed to highlight an authoritarian success story in a way that the designers of the 1936 Berlin Olympics would have appreciated.
The influence of these countries, particularly China, in the developing world is also growing. Many see the so-called “Beijing Consensus” --- placing economic development ahead of even modest democratization --- as more appealing than the inherent inefficiencies of popular control, not to mention American hectoring and self-righteousness.
Even our closest historic allies in Europe are increasingly asserting their own notions of what is best for them. With a rapidly aging, even declining population, these countries do not share the basic American need for sustained, vibrant economic growth over the next few decades. Instead they likely will continue to embrace a conscious policy of slow growth and stability. This will not change even when the hated George Bush is gone --- despite a possible flurry of post-election Obamamania.
How to respond to these trends? Flex our muscles? Been there, done that and what has it gotten us? In the end, we will have fewer opportunities to apply either military or economic power. The latter is now too well dispersed in the world and likely to become more decentralized in the coming decades. Even military power has its limits as can be seen by the rise of asymmetrical warfare. At the same time rising economies like China are rapidly increasing their military might as well.
None of this means that we should accept the fashionable notion of American decline. Although obscured by the current financial crisis, our unique strengths --- demographic, economic, and even political --- remain very much intact. An aging Europe, the favored candidate for preeminence among many east coast policy wonks --- does not share these assets. They have their own ethnic problems, a weak military, a shrinking supply of skilled workers and a continuing dearth of babies. Their economic system may not have our unfortunate penchant for excess, but built on security, it appears to restrain innovation and risk-taking.
China, India and Russia and other rising powers of today also face enormous demographic and economic challenges. All have large populations of poor people once you leave the westernized cores. Russia’s economy is overly dependent on commodities; China and Russia face demographic declines equal or even worse than the EU.
So where can we find our best allies? We look to those countries who share our demographic vitality, our fecundity and common values --- Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Like the United States these countries are also “countries of aspiration.” They remain enormously attractive to both skilled and unskilled immigrants, including those from Europe and Asia. If there’s a brain drain in the world, it’s mostly to the US, Canada and Australia.
Although born to British colonialism, these countries have over time, notes historian David Cannadine, “increasingly come to resemble the United States”. This is not a matter of liking George Bush, eating McDonald's or even getting fat. It’s about young countries that are, in their own fashion, knitting together diverse legacies, including those of indigenous people. Strong pockets of anti-Americanism exist in certain circles in all of these countries, but on the grassroots level the similarities are likely to become more striking over time.
Bolstering ties with Canada represents by far the greatest opportunity. High energy costs mean proximity matters more than ever. Canadian and American firms need to share adjacent markets. This will strengthen even more the strongest bilateral trade relationship on the planet.
Perhaps even more important are family ties. Canada remains the largest source of visitors to the United States and vice-versa. Some 800,000 Canadians have settled permanently in the United States; 200,000 Americans have moved north to Canada. Many have dual citizenship. (A quick disclaimer: my wife is a native of Quebec and a dual citizen).
Building on these natural ties will take some psychological changes in both countries. A strong alliance requires both a confident Canada and a respectful America. Americans need to stop thinking of Canada as a kind of northern icebox that we raid for resources when hungry. Canadians, for their part, should no longer regard themselves as America’s poor cousins but as equal partners with enormous resources, both human and material.
With Canada, this relationship can be immediately strengthened at both the national and regional level. One step would be to embark on a program of cross-border infrastructure that would expand trade corridors from the Arctic down to Mexico, from Cascadia to the north Atlantic. Such steps would increase markets and productive capacity across our common continent.
Another potential opportunity lies in building an alliance around environmental and energy issues. A strongly integrated North American Energy Community, including Mexico, could insulate Americans from unreliable suppliers in the Middle East, Russia and South America. For Canadians, it would cement a stable, long-term relationship with a steady customer and perhaps guarantee a floor on prices.
Finally, NAEC would work on environmental concerns related to energy. We all share a common space here in North America; mountain ranges, rivers, lakes and topographical zones do not recognize borders. As we work to secure our common energy future, we should then create a sustainable future for all the residents of the great continent.
Of course, none of this likely will excite the policy elites in Washington. They are already atwitter with ideas for how the President should address our relations with Pakistan, Russia, China or other troublesome distant place. It would be refreshing instead if perhaps Mr. Obama or Mr. McCain, on taking office, might first consider to build stronger relations with a neighbor who shares not only values and family ties but also this vast, rich and blessed continent.
Joel Kotkin is Executive Editor of NewGeography.com.