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August 2018

U.S. Canada Relationship at the Crossroads

By David Jacobson and Gary Doer
David Jacobson was the United States Ambassador to Canada 2009-13 and is now the Vice-Chairman of the BMO Financial Group. Gary Doer
was the Canadian Ambassador to the United States 2009-16 and is now Senior Advisor to the Dentons Law Firm. They are co-chairs of the
Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

This summer we have seen the imposition of billions

of dollars in tariffs by the United States on Canadian
steel and aluminum and billions in reciprocal tariffs
by Canada on steel, aluminum, whiskey, yogurt, and
other products. And with the recent announcement
that Canada will further retaliate in the United States
follows through on its threat to impose 25-percent
tariffs on the automotive sector, it seems that
escalation is imminent.
All this takes place while the cornerstone of our economic relationship, NAFTA, is at risk – an
outcome that would have been inconceivable even a few years ago. While we are not yet in a
full-on trade dispute, there does seem to be a gathering storm. And these disputes are much
easier to lose than to win.
For several years as the Ambassadors from opposite sides of the 49th parallel, we were
responsible for maintaining and enhancing a relationship which most people believe is unlike
any other in the world – a relationship that served the economic, political, and moral interests
of both countries. If there was one word that summed up that relationship it was “respect.”
Respect for each other’s leaders, citizens, and values. We didn’t act this way out of generosity,
we did it because it benefited both countries.
There has been a lot of loose talk surrounding the trading relationship between the United
States and Canada. Here are a few facts to keep in mind. Canada and the United States enjoy
the largest bilateral trade and investment relationship in the world. Every day, about 400,000
people and more than $1.7 billion in goods and services move back and forth across our
border. That’s more than $1 million a minute and it’s balanced in both directions. Canada
buys more goods from the United States than China, Japan and the UK combined. Thirty-
six US states count Canada as their largest trading partner. Every Canadian Province counts
the United States as its largest trading partner. According the US Chamber of Commerce 9
million US jobs depend on trade with Canada. In short, the economic relationship is a big
But so much more is at stake. As President Reagan reminded us: “No other country in the
world is more important to the United States than Canada…. Canadians are not neutral –
they believe in democracy and work hard to protect it.”
We fought together on the fields of Flanders, the beaches of Normandy, the sands of the
Middle East, the mountains of Afghanistan. When American diplomats were held hostage
in Iraq, the United States turned to the Canadians for help. When the United States was
attacked on 9/11 100,000 ordinary Canadians gathered in front of their parliament building to
show their support. When both countries faced a threat from the Soviets, we formed the joint
command at NORAD to defend North America from attack.
From the beginning, the relationship between the United States and Canada has had its ups-
and-downs. No relationship between two sovereign nations is ever perfect. But as we used
to joke between ourselves, any two neighbors anywhere else in the world would gladly trade
their problems for ours!
If our choice is between all that – problems and all – and an uncertain future where Canada
might turn toward Europe and Asia and the United States might retreat behind its borders,
we’ll take the problems of the past.
If we are going to be able to call on each other in future times of need, and those times will
most certainly arise, we have to reestablish that level of mutual respect that has defined
Canadian-American relations for generations. We need to modernize NAFTA. Not destroy
it. We have to celebrate our shared values, not our balance of trade. And, finally, we need to
celebrate our friendship, not to mourn its passing.

The Canada Institute


Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

One Woodrow Wilson Plaza
1300 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20004-3027