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Standing Up to Uncle Sam
Published on Thursday, March 27, 2003 by the Globe & Mail/Canada
Standing Up to Uncle Sam
by Naomi Klein
 

As a kid, I had trouble understanding why my parents and siblings lived in Montreal, while my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins were scattered across the United States. On long car trips to visit relatives in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, my parents would tell us about the Vietnam War and the thousands of U.S. peace activists who had sneaked across the border to Canada in the late 1960s.

I was told that the Canadian government not only stayed officially neutral during that war, it offered sanctuary to U.S. citizens who refused to fight in a war that they believed was wrong. Derided as "draft dodgers" at home, they were welcomed in Canada as conscientious objectors.

My family's decision to emigrate to Canada was made before I was born, but these romantic stories planted an idea in my head when I was far too young to fend it off: I believed Canada had a relationship with the world that was radically different from that of the U.S.; that despite cultural similarities and geographic proximity, more humane and less interventionist values guided our dealings. In short, I thought we were sovereign.

Ever since, I have searched for evidence to back up that childhood (some would say childish) belief, with no luck -- until last week, when Canadian foreign policy took its sharpest turn away from the U.S. since the Vietnam War.

As it was in the '60s, Canada's position on this U.S. invasion is filled with hypocrisies. We have 31 soldiers in the Persian Gulf who are serving on exchange alongside U.S. and British troops, as well as three warships in the region. They are there, says Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, as part of Canada's support for the old-model "war on terror," not the new-model war on Iraq, even if the former has been officially relaunched as the latter (we've never been ones to keep up with the fashions).

But the remarkable fact remains: After decades of following the U.S. into every major military campaign, Canada is not backing this war. "If you start changing regimes, where do you stop?" Mr. Chrétien asked. Equally remarkable has been Mexican President Vicente Fox's position. Though also couched in caveats, he, too, has clearly said that "we are against this war."

These mild, cautious, even ambivalent rejections don't seem particularly spectacular set against the political bombast coming from Europe, China and much of the Arab world. And yet Canada's and Mexico's decisions may well represent a far greater challenge to a marauding American empire than all the shouting coming from overseas.

After all, when European and Arab countries take on the U.S., it's almost expected -- but Canada and Mexico? We are more than friends, more than strategic allies. We are satellite states, extensions of the U.S., its front and back yards, supplying cheap labor (Mexico) and cheap energy (Canada) and, of course, unconditional support. We are supposed to be on the same team -- Team NAFTA.

And that is what makes the fact that Canada and Mexico are standing up to the U.S. on the war -- albeit while trying not to draw too much attention -- so significant. Empires need colonies to survive, countries that are so economically dependent, so militarily inferior, that independent action is unthinkable.

Solidifying and deepening these fears and dependencies among Washington's closest neighbors and largest trading partners has been NAFTA's great achievement. The numbers speak for themselves: 86 per cent of Canada's exports and 88 per cent of Mexico's go directly to the U.S. If the U.S. retaliated by closing its borders, Canada's and Mexico's economies would crash overnight.

With those stakes in mind, John Ibbitson, writing in this paper last week, railed against the audacity of MPs who dared question the legality of George W. Bush's attack on Iraq. "If you are one of the millions of Canadians whose job depends on the free flow of goods and services with the United States, you should be furious." In other words, let the Europeans have their high-minded ideas about international law -- we have just-in-time car parts to deliver.

And yet somehow, despite our extreme economic dependencies and our fear of retaliation, a strong majority of Canadians and Mexicans support our governments' opposition to the war. This courage didn't come overnight -- we earned it, one Bush administration slight at a time.

After Sept. 11, Washington abruptly dropped plans to legalize the status of millions of undocumented Mexicans working without any protections in the U.S., a blow that seriously damaged Mr. Fox's popularity at home. And rather than Canadianizing the Mexican border, the U.S. has opted to Mexicanize the Canadian border. For Canadian citizens born in one of the countries the U.S. considers a threat, entering the U.S. has become an exercise in humiliation, complete with routine photographing and fingerprinting.

There is another factor leading to the newfound courage: It's easier to risk trade relations when "free trade" policies, after failing to deliver on so many of their promises, are increasingly unpopular. Last week, The Washington Post reported that, while Mexico's trade volume has nearly tripled since NAFTA was signed, poverty has surged drastically, with 19 million more Mexicans living in poverty than 20 years ago.

Now that Mexico and Canada have decided to declare their independence on Iraq, something remarkable is happening: nothing. No retaliation, not even a backlash -- just an expression of "disappointment" from the U.S. ambassador to Canada. Maybe they're too busy French-bashing to even notice.

And this is the real significance of the Canadian and Mexican positions. All empires, no matter how mighty, are also weak: Awesome power disguises rapacious need, a carefully hidden dependency on the colonized for everything from resources to labor to land for military bases.

As Washington's most loyal lackeys tentatively stand up to it one by one, we cannot help but notice that we are not just needy but needed. Canada and Mexico may seem expendable on their own, but combined? That's a different story. Together, they represent 36 per cent of America's export market. We supply the U.S. with 36 per cent of its net energy imports and 26 per cent of its net oil imports. And as much as its leaders like to imagine otherwise, the U.S. is actually not an island. It shares 12,000 kilometers of borderland with Canada and Mexico that it cannot protect without us.

Maybe these numbers were never supposed to be added up. NAFTA was never really a three-way partnership: It was more like two bilateral trade deals that were slapped together -- one between the U.S. and Canada, the other between the U.S. and Mexico. That is beginning to change as the reality dawns that, while the U.S. may act like an island, dependent on no one, it lives in a neighborhood. Abroad, the U.S. may well be able to sail to military victory, but, at home, it suddenly finds itself surrounded.

So while Europe warns of the rise of a new age of imperialism, what we are witnessing in North America is, ironically, the opposite: a superpower's surprising vulnerability, as dependent as it is dangerous. It may be able to live without the United Nations, and it could probably make do without France. But the U.S. could no more protect its people economically and physically without the help of Mexico and Canada than it could secede from planet Earth.

The implications of that realization will be far-reaching. Because there can be no all-powerful empires without faithful colonies.

Naomi Klein is the author of No Logo and Fences and Windows.

© 2003 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc

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