The Canadian Foreign Policy Journal recently announced the winners of its annual best paper prize. In this interview, we sat down with one of this year’s two winners, Professor Greg Anderson of the University of Alberta. His article, “David and Goliath in Canada-U.S. Relations: Who’s Really Who?”, reconsiders the past two decades of Canada-US relations within the dynamics of ‘asymmetric power’. We asked Anderson about his article and how his arguments apply to Canada today. 

Your paper, “David and Goliath in Canada-U.S. Relations: Who’s Really Who?” was published in November of 2018. With events that have transpired since, such as the USMCA negotiations or appointment of Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Honourable François-Philippe Champagne, have you felt that the perspectives espoused in your article regarding hierarchical power relations have been further reinforced, or have you seen and do you foresee any changes in US-Canadian relations due to these events? If so, in what way? 

I continually see elements of asymmetrical power playing themselves out in Canada-U.S. relations. It was the major impetus for my interest in writing the piece. As I note in my article, three references to “asymmetries” can be found throughout the academic literature, newspapers, and even popular culture surrounding bilateral relations. Yet, as important as “asymmetries” seemed to be, they were seldom explored. Indeed, they were treated as a kind of given, an unchanging physical law of the universe. Moreover, it was unclear what “asymmetries” actually meant in bilateral relations? It was sort of assumed that we had a shared understanding of how asymmetrical power played itself out.

In 2006, the theme of the APSA was “Power Reconsidered,” the starting point of which was Robert Dahl’s 1959 article, The Concept of Power. It wasn’t my first introduction to the dynamism of power scholars had been debating, but it really got me digging more deeply about the fact that power is neither a given, nor is it a static kind of force. In 2011, I took my first crack at applying some of my thinking about this to Canada-U.S. relations in a paper I presented at the ISA meeting. From there I sent versions of this paper to several journals, where it was promptly rejected, mostly for being too sweeping. It might still be.

However, to your specific question… I think the outcome of the NAFTA renegotiations in 2017-2018 are a good example of how power plays itself out in different ways, including in terms of Canada’s strategy in bargaining with the hyperpower. Consider NAFTA Chapter 19, the infamous dispute settlement mechanisms disciplining the use of trade remedy laws. In 1987 and again in 2018, this was a kind bright line in the sand for Canadian negotiators, an imperative element to enshrine and preserve as a means of immunizing Canadian business from the vagaries of American interest groups lobbying for protection.

In both 1987 and 2018, I think you could sustain the case that Canada got its way in preserving these provisions because they were able to take advantage of a hyperpower that needed to complete an agreement and was focused on different priorities within those negotiations, many of which were derived from both domestic and foreign political imperatives. More colloquially, America had bigger fish to fry in negotiations with Canada and wasn’t prepared to let them fail over dispute settlement. Whether you see that as a “concession” to Canada by Washington is perhaps a matter of perspective. However, at the outset of the NAFTA renegotiation, I was certain Chapter 19’s days were numbered. Indeed, the initial U.S. negotiating position in the NAFTA renegotiation was to eliminate Chapter 19. I think the Trump Administration was so intensely focused on reforming rules of origin such that competition from Mexico and third-parties was curtailed that a lot of other chapters of the NAFTA were not so much eliminated or reformed, but “updated,” mostly with text from the Trans Pacific Partnership the Trump Administration withdrew from in early 2017. The Trump Administration’s obsessive focus on rules of origin, the general chaos around the Administration, and pressure to get a deal done, meant issues like dispute settlement didn’t get that much attention—thus allowing Canada to argue for their retention.

I’m not willing to place money on particular changes in Canada-U.S. relations one way or another flowing from the dynamism of “power,” at least not given what I understand of it to this point. Part of the reason is connected to the broader inability of social science to “predict” much of anything. However, I am struck by the absence of research into the particular circumstances, on what issues, and at what level of hierarchy the dynamism of power in Canada-U.S. relations actually functions. There was no way to tackle all of that in a journal article. It was unsatisfying to write an article that concludes only by calling for more research into these issues. Sorry.

However, one of the critiques I would offer of some of the conflict management literature I cite in my article is that it is almost entirely retrospective. In hindsight, we can see a lot of things with considerable clarity. What I’d like to see is more of a forward-looking orientation toward trying to parse out any patterns to how power functions in starkly asymmetric contexts such as Canada-US relations. Prediction and grand-theorizing may not be goals of this research, but identifying how power functions in different settings might lend itself to teasing out generalizable strategies for managing asymmetrical power in different domains.

In your article, you discuss Robert Dahls (1957) conception of power as “the ability of party A to get B to do something they otherwise wouldn’t do”. For Canada (in this case, party A), what would you say are some of the most burning issues, that we would like the United States (in this case, party B) to agree to?

I think Canadians would love to see Washington adopt Canada’s world view on a whole range of issues, particularly the utility of a rules-based system of trade or the importance of international institutions. That’s not going to happen. America has a much different global agenda (and set of obligations) than Canada and isn’t able to focus on a relatively narrow set of issues the way Canada can. This may be a blessing or a curse… we simply haven’t probed this enough. On the one hand, America’s distraction can be Canada’s advantage in shaping bilateral policy. After 9/11, America was pretty distracted. In putting forward the Smart Border Accords in late 2001 and actively participating in thinking about what a perimeter strategy for North America could be, Canada arguably had a hand in (briefly) shaping American thinking about integration and border security. On the other hand, the same set of distracting circumstances could arguably have made it harder to get Washington to think cooperatively about “perimeter.” But, on what issues did each of these scenarios play out? My guess is that big ideas like perimeter strategies washed up on the rocks of American distraction. But what about smaller stuff like interoperability on disaster preparedness or pandemic response between Public Safety and DHS? How much of what currently exists leans Canadian because of Ottawa’s influence on issues, especially those of a technocratic nature, lower in the hierarchy of America’s global agenda?

Canadian foreign policy is in many ways mostly trade policy. As I note in the paper, Canada’s ability to give laser-like focus on a relatively narrow set of issues in bilateral relations may level the informational playing field vis-à-vis a distracted, or otherwise overwhelmed, hegemon. America has a lot of people banging on its doors for things. Canada is a stable, single-issue ally (trade) that doesn’t often get the attention of lawmakers or senior policy-makers in Washington. Well-funded U.S. interest groups who want to restrict competition from Canada (Beef, Forestry, etc) can certainly generate havoc for Canada by providing detailed (skewed) information of their own to U.S. policy makers disposed toward protecting them.

A final comment here about asymmetries that needs more exploration is that so much of what is important to Canada in the United States isn’t considered a component of U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, the integration of the two economies is deep enough that many of the challenges Canada faces are in US domestic regulatory processes. At times that might work for Canada, particularly relative to other “foreigners.” But at others, it might complicate matters because Canada is periodically singled out as also “foreign” (Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs in 2018, for instance). Trump’s tariffs were obviously an exercise of U.S. power that flowed from the top of the President’s overall economic agenda. Not sure how much Canada could have done on that. However, the question for me flowing from my paper is how much the technocratic nature of much of Canada-U.S. relations contributes to a leveling of the playing field, mitigates the arbitrary exercise of power? Returning to the NAFTA renegotiations, I wonder how much of the USMCA story can be explained by the fact that Chrystia Freeland and Robert Lighthizer were geeky technocrats on trade policy, thus removing some of the politics that could easily have infected many areas of that negotiation? As they sat across the table from each other, both spoke language and technicalities in ways both could appreciate and work with. On what issues was this dynamic most impactful?

Same question –  with party A and B reversed? What does the United States want Canada to concede?

There are lots of issues on which the U.S. would like to see Canadian concessions. All you need to do is look at the annual National Trade Estimate put out by USTR or the initial negotiating objectives set by USTR as the NAFTA renegotiations began. What surprises me is the gap between those negotiating goals and the actual text of the USMCA; in other words, there were a number of things the U.S. side simply abandoned. Among the stated targets for elimination from any new agreement were dispute settlement, temporary entry for business persons, and the NAFTA side agreements on labor and the environment. Not only did they all survive, labor and environment were significantly strengthened.

If we come back to Dahl in terms of asking “why and how” the USMCA turned out the way it did, I think we’d have to think about some of the broader dynamics that were pushing Canada and the U.S. toward agreement in the fall of 2018. I think, for example, that the embattled Trump Administration increasingly needed some kind of “win” to show for its efforts in late 2018. In terms of Dahl, what might this have meant for Trump’s “base, means, amount, and range” of power? How different was Canada’s position on some renegotiation issues (supply management, for instance) in late 2018 relative to mid-2017 when Trump initially threatened to walk away from the NAFTA altogether?

The point is, when we think about “power” in Canada-U.S. relations, it is not some sort of static, unidirectional phenomenon that always results in Canada being a “price taker.” It depends on a host of other dynamics, not the least of which is time.

In the introduction of my paper, I talk about Malcolm Gladwell’s 2013 book David and Goliath. He anchors the book in the biblical tale of David and Goliath, arguing that the entire conflict is probably misunderstood. He argues that luck or divine intervention had little to do with the outcome. Indeed, Gladwell persuasively argues that the outcome was easily predicted given the circumstances of the battle. Military and strategic planners have long studied the dynamics of asymmetric warfare. Victory or defeat in individual skirmishes is a delicate mix of tactics and circumstance.

My argument is that these lessons ought to be more actively applied to research into bargaining and negotiation since the principles at play are very much the same.

How do you think the results of the 2020 election will influence US-Canadian relations? Will this dynamic vary significantly depending on whether or Republican or Democratic candidate is elected? Finally, do you have any views on which of these scenarios is more likely?

I’m not sure I could definitively say what’s going to happen on this front if I had unlimited time and space to sort through it. I think it could play out in a number of different ways, regardless of whether we end up with four more years of Trump or end with a Democrat in the White House. First and foremost, no matter who wins or loses, Trumpism isn’t going away. Any Democrat that takes the White House is going to have to contend with that for quite a while. The seeds of discontent that Trump rode to victory in 2016 are alive and well in many places.

However, I do think we could use Dahl as a starting point to begin thinking about power Canada-U.S. relations in early 2021. How could Trump’s re-election, for instance, result in a significant augmentation of the “base” of Trump’s power? What about the “means”? How emboldened will he be after a victory to continue the aggrandizement of power in the executive branch? What additional “means” flowing from his election victory will he use to do so? What will be the “amount” (probability he’ll get his way) of many of Trump’s powers after re-election? And, what sort of “scope” will that power entail; in other words, what’s the likely resistance or blowback he’ll face? On that last issue, much depends on what happens to Democrats in the House of Representatives as well as their ability to make inroads in the U.S. Senate.

A slightly different analysis for a successful Democratic president could also be advanced, perhaps starting with whether the nominee leaves the Democratic Convention in Milwaukee this August with wind in their sails or was something less than the consensus choice in a brokered convention?

The impact on the winner’s “power,” and the knock-on impact on asymmetries of power in Canada-U.S. relations will depend mightily on the circumstances under which the president wins (re)election and enters office in January 2021.



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