“Nationalism versus Continentalism: Clarksonian Perspectives”
This is a contribution from Greg Inwood for the series commemorating the work of Stephen Clarkson who died in 2016.
Greg Inwood is a Profesor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration, and a member of the Yeates School of Graduate Studies at Ryerson University. He is the author of Understanding Canadian Public Administration and The Politics and Legacy of the Macdonald Royal Commission. He is the recipient of the Donald Smiley Prize in 2006 for the best book published on government and politics in Canada.
This tribute to Stephen Clarkson begins with his personal connection, where Stephen, in very Clarksonian style, dismissed Greg’s choice of thesis topic as ‘boring.’
Nationalism versus Continentalism: Clarksonian Perspectives
by Greg Inwood
In perhaps my first encounter with Stephen Clarkson in the Fall of 1986, we were seated beside each other at a seminar in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto where I had just arrived as a graduate student undertaking a PhD. We struck up a conversation, and he asked what I was planning to write my PhD dissertation on. I was still undecided, but told him someone suggested that I might write a biographical study of the constitutional expert Eugene Forsey. Stephen looked at me and quickly and emphatically pronounced on the idea: “how boring,” he said, rather to my surprise. He then suggested that there was a dissertation just waiting to be written on the recently-completed Macdonald Royal Commission. I looked at him and thought – but did not have the temerity to say out loud – “how boring.” But Stephen was persuasive, and the idea percolated in my mind. The Commission’s signature recommendation had been that Canada enter into a free trade agreement with the United States, an ideas taken up with alacrity by the Mulroney government, and central to the great free trade debate just beginning to unfold across Canada in the run-up to the 1988 election. In the end I undertook a dissertation on that very subject focusing on the debate between nationalists and continentalists. I did so under the guidance par excellence of Stephen Clarkson, whose expert combination of laissez faire and active interventionism as dissertation supervisor proved to be the perfect formula for success.
The other significant early encounter with Stephen was in a graduate course he co-taught with Mel Watkins called Canadian Political Economy. After having taken legions of political science courses, I had finally discovered that there were scholars and a literature which I had previously assumed what political science was all about. Their course had an immense impact on me, as did working as Stephen’s TA for his undergraduate course on Canadian political economy.
As we move into the post-globalization era marked by the renegotiation of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Brexit, the cancellation of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, the reassertion of “America first,” and the revocation of international free trade principles and practices by the current American administration, it is interesting to look at Clarksonian conceptions of nationalism and continentalism as reflected in Stephen’s thinking over the trajectory of his remarkable career.
Stephen began in the 1960s and 1970s with assessments of the ideational ferment of the times and with a normative and theoretical approach that eventually evolved into a sharply tuned analysis of the pragmatic institutional features of free trade and continentalism. Stephen started with assessments of the policies of the Diefenbaker Conservatives, Walter Gordon, the Pearson and Trudeau Liberals, and left nationalist critiques emerging at that time. He posed provocative questions about the extent of Canadian autonomy, for instance in the collection of essays he edited for the University League for Social Reform entitled An Independent Foreign Policy for Canada? (Stephen always pointed out there was a question mark at the end of the book title) (Clarkson 1968). His Canada and the Reagan Challenge (Clarkson 1985) explored the exercise of American approbation toward the nationalist turn in Canadian government policy regarding the National Energy Program and the Foreign Investment Review Agency (and was dedicated, by the way, to the father figure of liberal Canadian nationalism, Walter Gordon). By the 1990s and 2000s, Stephen turned his focus more sharply to the institutional realities of the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and NAFTA, as well as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the World Trade Organization (WTO), dissecting the meaning of the new supra-constitutional regime and pointing to the legal, institutional and legitimacy limitations of the neoconservative project to make Canada and the world safe for transnational capital.
Underlying Stephen’s work was a normative dimension which reflected the broad currents of nationalism and continentalism in Canadian life. He identified with a value system rooted in nationalism giving top priority to political autonomy, social equality, labour rights, and environmental sustainability; continentalists, on the other hand, he felt saw integration as top priority and prioritized economic growth thereby entrenching reliance on factors beyond national control (Clarkson 2002, 9).
Stephen identified how problematic the gulf in value systems between nationalists and continentalists could be, resulting in a “dialogue of the deaf” (Clarkson 2002, 10). Vilification of each side by the other prevented any meaningful exchange, with continentalists condemning nationalists as either ignorant of elementary economics or outright demagogues, and nationalists condemning continentalists as the forces of evil as represented by transnational corporations and neoconservative apologists. These differing perspectives extended to perceptions of the role of the state, with continentalists believing that “who governs least governs best,” and nationalists preferring an activist state. One of the most intellectually rewarding aspects of being one of Stephen’s students and later his TA was that he brought prominent representatives of both these broad perspectives into his classrooms and seminars to air their views. He even sometimes put them in the same room together. The fireworks were remarkably instructive.
By the late 1980s and early 1990s the battle had tipped appreciably in favour of the continentalists whose ideological predisposition to free markets and neoconservatism had seen them enact a widespread program of not only free trade, but also privatization, deregulation, lower taxes, and greater corporate freedom. These measures, the nationalists felt, were inimical to the public interest while privileging private interests. Stephen looked on many of these developments with some dismay. But he was conscious of the dangers of nostalgia, even as he took the activist, interventionist Keynesian state of Diefenbaker, Pearson and Trudeau the elder as the point of comparison against which to assess the neoconservative era of Mulroney, Chretien and Harper. Still, Stephen’s sympathies were always clear. In 2002 he wrote that after the ratification of the 1989 FTA:
I mentally wore a black armband. I was in mourning for the exuberant, liveable, creative, hopeful Canada that my generation had tried to build and that ‘free’ trade seemed to have condemned to a lingering death. I had shared, and helped articulate in my research, the concerns of the millions who opposed Mulroney’s deal. Deeper integration in the American system, we believed, would doom the efforts of many generations to build a better society on the northern third of the continent. CUFTA signalled the end of Canada as we knew it. It would strike at the heart of the government structures and programs in which we had lodged so much of our shared identity (Clarkson 2002, 14).
But Stephen moved from mourning to critical analysis pretty quickly, and produced a series of important works that took the continentalist policies and placed them under a microscope. If the continentalists were going to make claims about the virtues and values of free trade, Stephen was going to subject each and every claim to careful, thoughtful and precise scrutiny, He produced an analysis of astonishing breadth and depth, consisting of a series of dozens of case studies over a thematic trilogy (Clarkson 2002, 2008, Clarkson and Mildenberger 2011) and several other important books, journal articles, reports, public commentaries and studies.
Stephen often observed that one of the conditioning features of the North American relationship was its asymmetry. There is one hegemon and two peripheral powers. This aspect of realpolitik has come home to roost in the recent statements by the current US administration that it would tear up and renegotiate NAFTA, or perhaps just “tweak” it, before issuing a directive in May 2017 instructing Congress to begin renegotiations on NAFTA’s future. But Stephen frequently signalled the significance of the power imbalance in the trilateral continental partnership that emerged in the latter part of the late 20th and early 21st century.
Stephen noted that from Bush to Obama, successive efforts to institutionalize the relationship and create a form of North American governance were of little interest to the Americans. With virtually no legislative, executive or administrative presence, with an enfeebled and ineffective dispute-settlement regime and therefore no real judicial capacity, NAFTA was an ephemeral institutional reality. The fact that corporate North America felt impelled to create parallel institutions such as the doomed Security and Prosperity Partnership, or promote the annual Leaders’ Summit between the Prime Cinister and the two Presidents, or create the North American Competitiveness Council signalled the institutional shallowness of NAFTA. So too did the ineffectiveness of NAFTA’s North American Commission on Labour Cooperation and the North American Commission on Environmental Cooperation.
This all added up to the observation that essentially, what the Americans want the Americans get. Consider for instance, the power to renegotiate NAFTA. In 2002, Stephen presciently wrote:
The threat of abrogation has a very different weight in the hands of Washington than in those of Ottawa or Mexico City…. Disaster would be the assumed impact on either of the peripheral states should the United States abrogate. Following their virtual complete integration in the continental economy, they would be forced to their knees if Washington threatened to terminate its participation in the agreement… (Clarkson 2002, 41).
I suspect this is an aspect of realpolitik not well understood by the current regime in Ottawa.
Just look at the tremors that shook the Ottawa and the Canadian business establishment when the tweeting president-elect announced in early January 2017 that the major auto companies better produce cars in America or he was going to make them pay heavy border taxes for cars imported from other countries. Or in any of the other examples of Trump shooting off his Twitter, or his appointment of a hard line protectionist as his Trade Representative: In a release issued by the transition team, Trump said Robert Lighthizer will fight for trade deals that “put the American worker first.” These developments are reflective of an earlier crisis in Canadian-American relations which Stephen analyzed – the ascension to power of the Reagan government in 1980 with its own “America first” agenda, and the resulting crisis in the relationship characterized by Reagan’s (and corporate America’s) attack on Trudeau’s nationalist initiatives (Clarkson 1985). One key difference today, however, is that while Reagan eventually succumbed to dementia at the end of his presidency, Trump started his as just plain crazy.
Among Stephen’s insights is that the Americans always set the agenda, and if they permit themselves to be the object of policies dictated by the perimeter (ideas Stephen put forward with Matto Mildenberger in 2011 in Dependant America? – note the question mark again), America nonetheless holds the residual power to alter the trajectory of continental relations more or less at will. Stephen noted that the Canadian government negotiated the original FTA “on its knees” before their American counterparts. And he observed that Canada jumped into NAFTA as a defensive response to an initiative between the Americans and Mexicans, rather than as a strategic approach to national economic development. And if there was the need for any further proof of the American proclivity for pursuing its own self-interest, the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington dispelled any doubts, “promoting an instinctually territorial and autarchic response…” (Clarkson 2008, 369). The failure on the part of Canadian policy makers to appreciate the “America first” position of America is a recurring theme in Canadian-American relations. The continent is a function of American power. Trump is only articulating, in “Make America Great Again” a sentiment that is consistent with the assumption and reality of American predominance in the continent.
In the early 1980s when the Macdonald Royal Commission was being established, it created the largest social science research project in Canadian history. Stephen suggested a paper on the determinate power of the US Congress in setting the course for Canada-US relations. He was turned down, and the inquiry did not even commission a single piece of research dedicated to the Canada-US relationship – remember, this was the important national inquiry whose signature recommendation for free trade with the US, quickly taken up by Mulroney, became the new cornerstone of Canadian economic policy to the present day.
As Stephen contemplated the broad implications of the continentalist era, he asserted the emergence of “supra-constitutionalism” in the relations between Canada, the United States and, once NAFTA was implemented, Mexico. What did this mean? The continental political economy was overseen by a new set of institutional mechanisms articulated through trade agreements. NAFTA, along with the WTO, had “re-constitutionalized” Canada’s legal order. In effect, a new regime of norms, rules, and rights had developed that limited the powers of governments at all levels while also giving foreign corporations a powerful new capacity to challenge domestic regulations (Clarkson and Mildenberger 2011, 263). Stephen, again demonstrating the range of his intellectual curiosity, pursued the political-legal dimension of NAFTA and globalized governance more generally in considerable depth with Stepan Wood in A Perilous Imbalance (Clarkson and Wood 2010).
Stephen’s insight was that the political supra-constitution was underdeveloped even as the economic forces unleashed in free trade arrangements proceeded to integrate the three countries of North America and constrain state power. He wrote that “NAFTA was carefully designed to prevent any form of continental governance from developing” (2002, 41). He extended this line of inquiry as the early 20th century unfolded, asking the provocative question “Does North America Exist?” (Clarkson 2008). Essentially, he argued, NAFTA reconstituted American hegemony. But having drawn this conclusion, he was not yet satisfied – it required further testing. So he assessed the North American relationship from a counterintuitive perspective challenging conventional wisdom in Dependent America? (Clarkson and Mildenberger 2011) by asking to what extent American power was constructed and constrained by its two continental partners. The answer was mixed. In some matters the peripheral countries contributed to America’s hegemony, but in most cases they were constrained by it.
Recent events seem to support the imperative of American hegemony. As the American President castigated his NATO partners, cozied up to the Russians, pulled out of the Paris climate change agreement, the evidence adds up. Even the current President’s apparent on-again-off-again animosity toward NAFTA is a code for “we will do it our way.” So too is the continuous program of trade harassment policies on steel, softwood lumber, the attack on Canadian supply management dairy policies, on wheat and so on.
The paradox of the Canadian position is that the further we continentalize our political economy, the worse off we get, but the policy response then is to try to get in even deeper. The FTA was a lousy deal – we negotiated on our knees and were kicked in the derriere by the Americans; NAFTA was worse. We insisted on joining those negotiations as a defensive counter to the idea of a spoke-and-hub trade regime dominated by the US, and we were kicked in the gut; and now with Trump, Justin Trudeau and his foreign affairs ministers Chrystia Freeland are engaging in shuttle, email and telephone diplomacy, dispatching their key officials Katie Telford and Gerald Butts to no doubt prostrate themselves to the likes of Steve Bannon (before he was ushered out the White house door) and Gerald Kushner. Trudeau has even enlisted the aid of Brian Mulroney and one of his key FTA negotiators, Derrek Burney, to assist in pleading the Canadian case. These are the same two architects of the failed FTA and NAFTA. Canadians should prepare to get kicked in the head. This trifecta full body assault is the product of 30 years of repeating the same behaviours and expecting different results – the definition of insanity.
Stephen and Matto Mildenberger wrote in 2011 about possible future scenarios for North America. They suggested one path would see the US:
…go beyond its present mild economic nationalism and reinforce its historical proclivity for isolationism. It could become a Lone Ranger vigilante focusing on sealing its borders rather than promoting connections with its periphery…. To the south it could try fortifying its border still further against would-be Mexican workers and narcotics merchants, without paying heed to the economic distress, political chaos, and security bedlam pushing people across the Rio Grande (Clarkson and Mildenberger 2011, 281-2).
These words seem prophetic, but they are more the product of careful and thoughtful analysis that was Stephen’s hallmark.
This does leave us with questions about the current state of Canadian nationalism. In a 1988 essay entitled “Continentalism: The Conceptual Challenge”, Stephen reminded us of Samuel Moffat’s 1907 assertion not that Canadians would one day become American, but that they already were and did not know it. But Moffat also held that the complete political, economic and cultural absorption of Canada into the United States was inhibited by what Moffat called a “spirit of nationality.” This spirit, Stephen said, evolved through the 20th century experiences of two world wars, the flag debate, the patriation of the Constitution and Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the referenda on sovereignty association and other events and episodes in the collective conscious of Canadians.
How persistent and resourceful this “spirit of nationality” remains in the face of 30 years of unrelenting neoconservative attacks on the key structural state-level supports for this spirit is hard to gauge. Like Stephen in 1989, I sometimes find myself figuratively wearing a black arm band to signify my own uncertainty about the continued existence of Canadian autonomy and nationalism under the current conditions. However, to assuage these feelings, I can once again turn to a Clarksonian perspective on future prospects for Canadian nationhood. Stephen made note of a rarely considered dimension of continentalism – namely that the Americans would never stand for annexation of Canada. It would upset the balance of power in the US Congress, he argued, by adding 24 million English speaking Canadians (he assumed Quebec would go its own way) who skew heavily toward the Democrats and for whom state supplied medical care was a core part of their identity. The political headache would be too much to bare.
In such moments, I remind myself that a search for balance infused Stephen’s perspective and work. Nationalists need to articulate and operationalize an approach that begins to rebalance the power of various actors and institutions in the Canadian and continental political economy and that reclaims and reinvigorates a role for the state. I foresee a strategy of quiet, incremental and subtle policy initiatives – nationalism by stealth if you will – that both reflects and supports a paradigmatic shift of the sort which launched the neoconservative continentalist revolution. Eventually, perhaps a new royal commission advocating a “leap of faith” into a more boldly autonomous and outward looking approach connecting Canadian interests to the broader global landscape through carefully constructed economic relations which privilege people, the environment and community over private profit and transnational greed might be the launching point.
As I look back on that fateful day when I first met Stephen, I am certainly thankful that he persuaded me to undertake that dissertation on the Macdonald Royal Commission. I also sometimes wonder if any grad student, bright eyed, bushy-tailed and naïve as I was back then, ever wrote that political biography of Eugene Forsey. If so, I am sure it would have been a thoughtful, careful and insightful piece of work, if indeed a rather boring one. I am glad it wasn’t me, though, because among the many things Stephen helped me to understand, was that the ongoing problematic of nationalism versus continentalism is never boring.
Clarkson, Stephen, ed. 1968. An Independent Foreign Policy for Canada? Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.
Clarkson, Stephen. 1985. Canada and the Reagan Challenge: Crisis and Adjustment 1981-1985. Toronto: Lorimer.
Clarkson, Stephen. 2008. Does North America Exist? Governing the Continent after NAFTA and 9/11. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Clarkson, Stephen. 1993. “Economics: The New Hemispheric Fundamentalism,” in Ricardo Grinspun and Maxwell A. Cameron, The Political Economy of North American Free Trade. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 61-9.
Clarkson, Stephen. 2001. “The Multi-Level State: Canada in the Semi-Periphery of both Continentalism and Globalization.” Review of International Political Economy. 8, 3 (January), 501-27.
Clarkson, Stephen. 2002. Uncle Sam and US: Globalization, Neoconservatism, and the Canadian State. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Clarkson, Stephen and Matto Mildenberger. 2011. Dependent America? How Canada and Mexico Construct U.S. Power. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Clarkson, Stephen and Stepan Wood. 2010. A Perilous Imbalance: The Globalization of Canadian Law and Governance. Vancouver: UBC Press.
 Canada. 1985. The Royal Commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada.
 The dissertation was transformed into book form, again with Stephen’s help, and published as Gregory J. Inwood. 2005. Continentalizing Canada: The Politics and Legacy of the Macdonald Royal Commission. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Marjorie Griffin Cohen is currently the Chair of the B.C. Fair Wages Commission. She is an economist who has written on the Canadian economy, women’s labour, electricity deregulation, and international trade agreements