Stephen Clarkson: An Introduction to a special blog series

Stephen Clarkson: Political Economist with a Global Vision (1937 – 2016)

Marjorie Griffin Cohen and Daniel Drache

Stephen Clarkson died early in 2016 in Freiburg, Germany and Canada lost someone very special. Stephen was a Professor in Political Science at the University of Toronto and engaged in teaching, research and writing until his death. He has contributed, in an extraordinary way, to the public understanding of Canada and North America in the 20th and 21st centuries, Europe in the 21st century, and the politics of globalization in the Western World.  He was one of Canada’s leading experts on Canada/US relationships and in this, his absence is acutely felt now as we are in the midst of renegotiating NAFTA.

At the annual gathering of academics in Toronto at Congress 2017, we organized a series of panels related to Stephen Clarkson’s work. We constructed the panels with the idea of bringing together experts who work in the various areas related to what interested Stephen to understand Stephen’s impact in the area.  The papers that were presented at Congress will each appear in the PEF forum. The point of the papers was not necessarily to be a comment on or critique of his work per se, but to show his influence on the entire thinking in an area of political economy, relating to issues such as the mega-trade deals, the machine politics of the Liberal and Conservative Parties, corporate influence, North American integration, and the new issues arising for regional and world politics such as the investor state dispute settlement mechanism trade court.

Stephen’s work was centered on the leading issues of the day foremost of which was the erosion of national sovereignty facing the unstoppable, far-reaching invasiveness of globalization and WTO’s complex, difficult legal culture.  He authored 14 books, and edited four others.[1]  He was a gifted linguist and fluent in French, Russian, Spanish, Italian and German.  He could present in each of these languages (in their home countries) what many of us struggle to do in English in Canada – deliver an academic paper or lecture without notes.

He received many honours and awards – some of them the most prestigious this country can give, such as the Order of Canada.  Stephen was also a gifted teacher and loved that aspect of his life.  He particularly enjoyed teaching undergraduates (another departure from many colleagues).  He even managed, through his charm and determination to include undergraduates on panels at Congress (the yearly gathering of Canadian academics where undergraduates are not permitted to present papers).

He has had an exceptionally productive career with a great many significant publications that have affected thinking in this country. An Independent Foreign Policy for Canada, 1968 is an edited collection, in which he wrote a chapter that presaged Trudeau’s Third Option and began his life-long concern researching the Canada’s declining importance in the global economy.

Uncle Sam and Us,: Globalization, Neoconservatism, and the Canadian State 2002 provides a powerful study documenting the massive reorientation of Canadian state policy, the rise of North American corporate power and the increasingly toxic role of neo-liberal ideology as a separate commanding policy space. The Big Red Machine, 2005 delved into the exercise of power, disappointments, betrayals and leadership battles of Canada’s Liberal Party, once the country’s unchallengeable hegemonic political party whose grip on power seemed unassailable at the polls despite a string of minority governments and the shift of power regionally from Quebec to the West.

These massively documented volumes are an excellent example of his vast knowledge and deeply analytical approach to Canada-US relations.  Before this book, his earlier book, Canada and the Regan Challenge:  Crisis in the Canadian-American Relationship, 1985 was one of the best contemporary studies of Canada/U.S. relations available from a critical Canadian perspective. His book became a classic of the new critical nationalism of English Canada of the 1980s, along with Kari Levitt’s earlier work Silent Surrender (1970), and was used extensively in universities all over the country on the asymmetrical, nuanced relationship between the two countries.

Another major initiative was to undertake a two volume magisterial study of the career, personality, ideas and exercise of power of the protean Pierre Elliot Trudeau during his decade long, tumultuous time as Prime Minister. He wrote this with his wife, at the time, Christina McCall Newman, a well-known journalist.  The vibrancy of their exhaustive reckoning and biting assessment of the Trudeau years in part came from their finely-honed writing skills exemplified by their unforgettable opening line of the first volume of their biography, “He haunts us still”.  Its impact also, derived from the dozens of interviews carried out in Ottawa, London and Washington about Canada’s larger than life Prime Minister who transformed modern Canada linguistically, economically and constitutionally. As these volumes showed, for many Trudeau became the ideal love-hate polarizing actor, change-agent, activist, theoretician, global celebrity with a grand federal vision for a newly constituted English Canada. In the Clarkson/McCall authoritative account we relive the nail-biting excitement and high and low drama of Canada’s constitutional wars particularly through Trudeau’s struggle against René Levesque’s and later with Lucien Bouchard’s la grande stratégy pour l’independence. Stephen and Christine won the Governor General’s medal for the first volume.

After the liberalism of the Trudeau years Canada changed, and Clarkson continued to focus on power, ideology, and state policy. In addition to his broad knowledge of Canada/US relations, Clarkson published extensively on North American political economy along with a proliferation of studies and reports, with a special emphasis on NAFTA and its implications for Canada and Mexico. While working on issues related to free trade, he became fluent in Spanish, developed a close working relationship with significant scholars in Mexico, and spent considerable time in Mexico doing research for publications.

It is a tribute to his perseverance that he not only learned Spanish to be able to better communicate with Mexican scholars and government officials, but also shifted his focus of analysis to include the implications of North American trade relations on Mexico as well.  One large-scale project (and most of his books are what he called “his big book projects” e.g. Does North America Exist, 2008, running over 500 pages) is innovative analytically in that he examines whether North America is becoming a cohesive economic and political unit akin to the European Union, with its increasing integration of political, economic, sociological and cultural integration.  Because of the dominant power of the U.S. he felt it is incorrect to think North American integration was an embryonic form of European integration. There is no separate political center, and no governance equivalent to that in the EU.  He concluded with a sense that the asymmetrical power system in North America might be the template for the regionalism emerging in the twenty-first century.

In a book he co-authored with Matto Mildenberger, Dependent America?  How Canada and Mexico Construct U.S. Power, 2011, they turned the usual Canadian approach to the US on its head by examining the impact of Canada and Mexico on the U.S. policy making process.  This book contests the idea that US power is self-determined and a result of the autonomous actions of its own citizens’ industriousness.  Rather it shows the myriad ways that the US in both the past and present derives benefits from other states’ resources, but even more significantly they delineate and how both countries, rather than recognizing this power, constantly demonstrate dependent-country comportment toward the U.S.

Dependent America is a piece of bold scholarship that takes the entire continent and gives the current economic and political relationships an analytical and grounded historical context.  It also gives a framework for understanding the current NAFTA negotiations and the highly volatile political relationships post-Trump.

In all of Stephen Clarkson’s work, his expertise does not lose sight of the knowledge that institutions are grounded in the lives of people and communities. Throughout his work he is acutely aware that the pushback of social movement actors in search of large-scale political change can become change-makers, even when the institutional universe is heavily stacked against them. It comes as no surprise then, that for Clarkson there is no straight line of causality between the fatalism of  ”there is no alternative” to the powerful and  seemingly unstoppable forces of markets globally and the empowerment of citizens to act collectively and locally.

Stephen resumed his interest in the German language and Germany in the later years of his life.  With his wife, Nora Born, he spent about half the year in Canada and half in Germany, where he would lecture and pursue research and writing on subjects related to regionalism.

We very much miss him personally as a good friend but also as an intellectual presence in Canada.  He was forthright and fearless in his public commentaries, and was frequently heard on the CBC and Radio-Canada.

The papers to appear in this series in PEF are as follows:

  1. Andrew F. Cooper, “A Critical Appreciation of Stephen Clarkson: Looking Back at his ‘Foundational Text’ on Canadian Foreign Policy”
  2. Greg Inwood, “Nationalism versus Continentalism: Clarksonian Perspectives”
  3. Laura Macdonald, “When Will the Fiesta Start? Mexico-Canada Relations in a New North America”
  4. Louis W. Pauly, “Canadian Political Economy: The Legacy of Stephen Clarkson”
  5. Michele Rioux, “Globalization and the Neoliberal Trade Agenda @ Bay: New Challenges for Canada and North America
  6. Daniel Drache, “The Clarkson Story Up Until Now and The Uncertain Future Of The WT


[1] Among his many books are: An Independent Foreign Policy for Canada 1968, Canada and the Reagan Challenge: Crisis in the Canadian-American Relationship 1985, Trudeau and our Times (with Christina McCall two vols.) 1990 and 1994, Uncle Sam and us: Globalization, Neoconservatism and the Canadian State 2002,  The Big Red Machine: How the Liberal Party Dominates Canadian Politics, 2005, Does North America Exist?: Governing the Continent after NAFTA and 9/11, 2008, A Perilous Imbalance: The Globalization of Canadian Law and Governance (with Stepan Wood), 2010, Dependent America? How Canada and Mexico Construct US Power (with Matto Mildenberger), 2011.



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