The axis of stability

At my summer camp in Maine — which was really the equivalent of that South Pacific manhood ritual where they attach vines to a teenaged boy’s testicles and throw him off a tree — on the very first day they would gather all the new campers around and teach them the camp song. It was ...

588361_090220_84931163_resized2.jpg
588361_090220_84931163_resized2.jpg
US President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper shake hands after a press conference in Ottawa, Canada, February 19, 2009. Obama said he had assured Harper that a "Buy American" clause in his new economic stimulus law would not harm trade between the two allies. AFP PHOTO/DAVID BOILY (Photo credit should read DAVID BOILY/AFP/Getty Images)

At my summer camp in Maine — which was really the equivalent of that South Pacific manhood ritual where they attach vines to a teenaged boy’s testicles and throw him off a tree — on the very first day they would gather all the new campers around and teach them the camp song. It was entitled “Oh, Camp We Love” and, as the budding concentration camp guards they called counselors used to point out, “it’s sung to the same tune as the Canadian national anthem, “O Canada.'” Naturally, this generated confusion and blank stares from all the boys present because the comment was roughly as helpful as suggesting the camp talent show utilize the same narrative technique as The Tale of Genji. I mean, for goodness sake, we were from New Jersey. We knew Canada was up there somewhere between Boston and the North Pole and that they played hockey there, but beyond that, details were scarce.

Since then, throughout my life, I have always found that when giving a talk, a reference to Canada is reliably good for a laugh. Making fun of Canada seldom offends any American and Canadians tend to be too polite to object. And it it’s funny because Canada is so darned unthreatening, bland enough to make your average bowl of tapioca seem muy caliente. (The only thing more boring than Canada? Coldplay. “Viva la vida?!” Seriously. Viva la sominex.) Of course, I’m not the only one who has gone after Canada. Take for example the greatest song ever written about international relations, “Blame Canada.” (Which song clearly kicks the ass of anything Coldplay has ever written. Of course, so too does anything ever done by that immortal Canadian-Egyptian-Armenian, Raffi.)

It’s all a bit unfair actually. A lot unfair. And I was thinking this as I was watching President Obama’s press conference with Prime Minister Harper. Harper’s year has been as politically star-crossed as Obama’s has been seemingly guided by a lucky star. But together yesterday, these two were the picture of what good allies should be. They were polite, respectful, at times deferential, honest about areas of concern and seemingly sincere in their desire to work through potential trouble spots whether they be sclerotic border crossings or the potential for turbulence on trade. Both were gracious, articulate, and statesmanlike.

The U.S.-Canada Clean Energy Dialogue they announced was an excellent step to strengthen an already rock-solid relationship by collaborating on an issue where common interests abound.

During the news conference held by Harper and Obama, each of the men warmly characterized the state of the relationship between the two countries. Framing his remarks in the context of Obama’s ascendancy to office, Harper said:

His election to the presidency launches a new chapter in the rich history of Canada-U.S. relations. It is a relationship between allies, partners, neighbors, and the closest of friends; a relationship built on our shared values — freedom, democracy, and equality of opportunity epitomized by the President himself.”

Obama, speaking next said:

I came to Canada on my first trip as President to underscore the closeness and importance of the relationship between our two nations, and to reaffirm the commitment of the United States to work with friends and partners to meet the common challenges of our time. As neighbors, we are so closely linked that sometimes we may have a tendency to take our relationship for granted, but the very success of our friendship throughout history demands that we renew and deepen our cooperation here in the 21st century.

“We’re joined together,” he continued, “by the world’s largest trading relationship and countless daily interactions that keep our borders open and secure. We share core democratic values and a commitment to work on behalf of peace, prosperity, and human rights around the world.”

Usually such words exchanged between political leaders are empty rhetoric. But, in the case of the U.S. and Canada, even with the ups and downs the relationship has been through, they ring true.

It underscored a reality that doesn’t earn magazine covers in the way problems such as those highlighted in FP‘s Axis of Upheaval do. It is natural to focus on problems and threats. But throughout human history and especially in the current era, instability and failed states are really “dog bites man.” 

What is rare, exceptional really, are the cases of the special relationships, the alliances that transcend treaties and become true and enduring partnerships. In many of the most important elements of life and foreign policy, boring is good. Boring is the foundation that allows us to stand the upheaval. Boring is constant in an inconstant world and as such is indispensable and invaluable. (The very best marriages for similar reasons, are sometimes perceived as boring. My wife for example, likes both Canada and Coldplay very much. Come to think of it, I’d probably better move on to the next thought…)

I would go further, it may well be that among the relationships of neighboring states, particularly among comparatively powerful neighbors, the U.S.-Canada relationship may be unique in history.  Oh sure, once, long ago, we had that little “Fifty-four Forty or Fight” issue, but that was with the British and frankly with all that manifest destiny testosterone pulsing through our then adolescent veins we were bound to get into trouble with anyone we encountered.

To put it into context, go through history in your mind. Pick two neighbors anywhere. Now find a pair that have gotten along better, avoided war (save for the conflicts depicted in “Canadian Bacon” and that in the aforementioned classic “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.”)

Go further, in the vein of my post last week on America’s worst alliances, make a list of America’s best alliances. Canada tops the list so easily that it is hard to find anyone else that is close. There’s the United Kingdom, of course, but we did get off to a bit of a rocky start with them and there was that pesky War of 1812 and they were, despite being officially neutral, not entirely constructive during the Civil War.

And then the next best ally? Ah, while the choices are few they are so tempting. Readership-baiting is so gratifying. (Really, you guys are so easy to toy with. It’s like having a dog that always goes after the stick.) I guess the next best ally we have had is Israel. (There, I’ve said it. Come on all you “realists” time to line up and give it your best shot. I’ll even provide your first line for you: “Some of my best friends are Jews, but…”) Or, offering the kind of paradox that makes such analyses so much fun (and explains everything about our relationship with the French) perhaps number three is actually France. Ah, this really is too enjoyable.

I think I will stop writing and just warmly contemplate your reactions out there in Wonkavia, land of the Foreign Policy geeks. (And congratulate myself for having gotten through an entire piece about Canada without a single joke about Celine Dion.)

DAVID BOILY/AFP/Getty Images

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows the Statue of Liberty holding a torch with other hands alongside hers as she lifts the flame, also resembling laurel, into place on the edge of the United Nations laurel logo.
An illustration shows the Statue of Liberty holding a torch with other hands alongside hers as she lifts the flame, also resembling laurel, into place on the edge of the United Nations laurel logo.

A New Multilateralism

How the United States can rejuvenate the global institutions it created.

A view from the cockpit shows backlit control panels and two pilots inside a KC-130J aerial refueler en route from Williamtown to Darwin as the sun sets on the horizon.
A view from the cockpit shows backlit control panels and two pilots inside a KC-130J aerial refueler en route from Williamtown to Darwin as the sun sets on the horizon.

America Prepares for a Pacific War With China It Doesn’t Want

Embedded with U.S. forces in the Pacific, I saw the dilemmas of deterrence firsthand.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, seen in a suit and tie and in profile, walks outside the venue at the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. Behind him is a sculptural tree in a larger planter that appears to be leaning away from him.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, seen in a suit and tie and in profile, walks outside the venue at the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. Behind him is a sculptural tree in a larger planter that appears to be leaning away from him.

The Endless Frustration of Chinese Diplomacy

Beijing’s representatives are always scared they could be the next to vanish.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan welcomes Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman during an official ceremony at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, on June 22, 2022.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan welcomes Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman during an official ceremony at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, on June 22, 2022.

The End of America’s Middle East

The region’s four major countries have all forfeited Washington’s trust.