Staples op-ed: Martin should not use his time in Mexico making plan for Fortress North America with George W. Bush

The Summit of the Americas in Mexico this week will be Prime Minister Paul Martin’s first step onto the international stage as a national leader. Much has been made of his first meeting with George W. Bush while at the summit, but there are much more important issues at stake than mad cow disease, softwood lumber, and Iraqi reconstruction contracts.

Canadians will be watching for indications of where Paul Martin intends to lead this country in a rapidly-changing world. Re-establishing Canada’s international stature appears to be at the top of his priorities. But it is less than clear what he thinks our international role should be, and how we should attain it.

Canadians are proud of our contributions to the world: UN peacekeeping, support for nuclear disarmament, the landmines treaty, global environmental leadership, and the promotion of international law. According to pollsters, we are more confident as a nation and we want to engage the world in order to make it more peaceful, prosperous, and environmentally healthy.

But Canada’s corporate community has been urging Prime Minister Martin to cast off these old “soft power” notions from Canada’s past. They argue that our future is tied to the United States, and that if we please the Bush administration we can enjoy the benefits of being the closest neighbour and best friend of the world’s only superpower. Pump billions more into the military and join national missile defence, they say, if that’s what it takes to win favour in Washington, D.C.

Prime Minister Martin, alarmingly, has taken much of the CEOs’ advice to heart. In the last few weeks alone, he has refashioned the government to mirror the United States’ Department of Homeland Security, promised the military more money while freezing spending on all other programs except health care, and handed the keys for Canada’s warplanes to the most hawkish of the Liberal caucus, his newly-appointed Defence Minister David Pratt.

It seems that Paul Martin needs to spend more time on Main Street, rather than Bay Street, if he thinks this is what Canadians want. Maclean’s magazine’s annual year-end survey found that only one in ten felt that the Prime Minister’s top priority should be “having a closer relationship with the United States.” Further, three out of every four agreed that “It is important for Canada to set its own course and we were right to stay out of the war, even if it has annoyed our closest trade partner and may have cost Canadian jobs.”

This international meeting in Mexico is shaping up to be an important test for Paul Martin. He will face a choice: Do we engage other countries, especially those in the developing world, as possible friends, trading partners, and recipients of our help? Or do we stand here in North America alongside the United States and watch the horizon for enemies, competitors, or resources to exploit for our own benefit?

The Polaris Institute’s friends in Washington have been warning us that the word on Capitol Hill predicts national missile defence will be high in George W. Bush’s mind when he meets with the Canadian Prime Minister. Will Paul Martin agree to join the ill-considered U.S. Star Wars missile shield and spend billions of dollars on the military, merely to appease the United States Republican establishment and Canadian corporations?

Someone should point out that there will be 32 other hemispheric leaders attending the Summit of the Americas. Many of them have been demanding more fairness in the global economy. Paul Martin should take the initiative and meet with Brazilian President Lula da Silva to show that Canada will take up the cause of international development and fair trade. That would be a far better use of time than working out a plan for Fortress North America with George W. Bush.

This op-ed by Steven Staples was published in the Hill Times on January 12, 2004.

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