As perennial Pacific Rim partners, Canada and America are the Alice and Ralph Kramden of cross-border relationships. Each new squabble, it seems, merely highlights their interdependence. Even now, despite all the bilateral misery, America buys more Canadian goods than does anyone else except Canada, which in turn buys more stuff from America than do the Germans, British, French and Italians combined. Like it or not, we're stuck together, even if sometimes we're scarcely on speaking terms.
Actually, it's surprising that these two nations don't quarrel even more. Why so? Both have politicians who aren't above feeding nationalistic red meat to their respective electorates and a porous 5,500-mile border that by itself can always cause friction. But is there another factor? Could it be that many Frenchmen would rather speak German, drink only American wine and ban the bikini than miss opportunities to diss Americans?
Sure, but the latest blowup, over the Helms-Burton Act, is purely American foolishness. This miscreant 1996 act of Congress aims to punish foreign companies doing business in Cuba, deny visas to foreign citizens that do so, and allow American lawsuits against foreign companies -- right, the firms themselves -- that do business with bad, bad Cuba. Naturally, the first company to run afoul of the law was Canadian. When Washington took note of the transgression and threatened action, ever-alert Canadian politicians began firing away: It was Alice and Ralph all over again. True, President Clinton has been able to delay implementation of the worst aspects of Helms-Burton, but he can't get rid of it.
It haunts U.S. trade policy. Critics say Helms-Burton violates world trade rules, and diplomats fear that the issue could paralyze the World Trade Organization. And recently, Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy, a veteran politician, became the highest ranking official from Ottawa to visit Cuba in 20 years.
In this increasingly free-trade world, Canada wants to decide with whom it can trade. Just as we choose, for example, to trade with China, whose human rights problems are scarcely any less than Cuba's, and Saudi Arabia, with human rights policies toward women that make Cuba seem like a feminist heaven.
Yes, Fidel Castro, 71, is one big cigar-puffing charismatic quack, but if America still thinks it can topple him by isolating him, I have a bridge to sell you. For nearly four decades now, America has tried the isolation route and the guy's still there. When you think about it, Castro has to thank America for making him the voice of Cuban anti-gringoism. Quips Axworthy: "Helms-Burton is a bit of a gift to Castro, isn't it? Now he can justify anew keeping a stiff lid on things there." Axworthy's got that right: The best thing a cynical Communist can have going for him is a cynical anti-Communist. After all, North Carolina's Helms is not only the protector of the world from Caribbean communism but also of the U.S. tobacco industry from foreign invasion.
Helms, 75, has been a senator since 1973, at which time Castro had been in power a mere 14 years. He is fast becoming Capitol Hill's de facto vicar of U.S. foreign policy. Sure, Canadian politicians play to their unthinking anti-Americans the way U.S. politicians play to their unthinking pro-Americans. Even so, I find myself agreeing with former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell, now in Los Angeles as Canada's consul general: "America always wants an exception [to free trade] when the rules don't work for its domestic politics. No one in Canada is blind to the nature of Cuba. But our involvement can help to stimulate change there. This is not an unprincipled position. It's the same as the United States takes in China: Better to engage. Canadians find it hard to understand the hang-up with Cuba. After all, you've had approachment with Vietnam. With North Korea."
OK, but the world had better not underestimate Helms. He has the clout to steer U.S. foreign policy off course. At a time when the world needs America's best leadership, here we are saddled with one of America's worst, at the height of his power and on a roll. Sure, Congress does have the constitutional right to be involved in foreign policy. But it doesn't have the constitutional right to be dumb.
Tiny, relatively inconsequential Cuba is one thing, but I just can't wait until Helms starts to sink his choppers into the neck of U.S.-China policy. Neither, I fear, can wary Asia: Helms-Burton reminds the world that the president is not always in charge, and America does not always speak with one voice. Fortunately, the Canadians, despite their constant public pretense at being mad at us, have a well-developed sense of humor. Isolated Beijing doesn't. Recall how it reacted to the Taiwan tension last year and how it appears to be handling the Hong Kong takeover this year.
Appreciate the contrast. And worry about it.
Tom Plate is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and he teaches ethics in UCLA's policy studies and communications programs.
Pub Date: 2/09/97