Hub Dialogue

What do the American mid-terms mean for Canada? Christopher Sands breaks down the bilateral implications of the elections

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with United States President Joe Biden in the Oval office Thursday, November 18, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press.

This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with Christopher Sands, director of the Wilson Center’s Canada Institute and adjunct professor of Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins University, about the mid-term elections in the United States and their implications for Canada-U.S. relations.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Christopher Sands, who’s the director of the Wilson Center’s Canada Institute, an adjunct professor of Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and a leading scholar and thinker on the Canada-U.S. relationship. I’m grateful to speak with him on November 9th, one day after yesterday’s midterm elections, to understand how the election outcomes may affect bilateral relations. 

Christopher, thank you for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

CHRISTOPHER SANDS: It’s a pleasure, Sean. I’m a listener. I try to tune in when I can. It’s a great conversation every time.

SEAN SPEER: Well, we’re honoured to have you today on what is an important topic. And before we get into the midterm results and how they may impact the Canada-U.S. relationship, I thought we’d start by establishing something of a baseline. Chris, how would you characterize the state of the relationship under the Biden administration? 

CHRISTOPHER SANDS: I think the relationship is fine at a sort of atmospheric level through that top line. We say the right things, unlike during the Trump era, where we had some notable incidents where we were very impolitic about each other. Now, you know, the diplomatic smoothness has been restored, but in a way that covers up really underlying problems that we’re still trying to grapple with. And I think we have a lot of Canadian officials who are aware of the problems and aren’t sure what to do, and we have a lot of Americans who hear that there’s a problem but aren’t sure what the problem is and are looking for ways to kind of address it, but they’re flying blind. 

And so, on a day-to-day basis, are we still friends? Absolutely. Are things getting better? I think I can point to tangible ways in which they are getting better. But I think that we have some DIY to do. We have some home repairs to do to make the relationship more sustainable and functioning better for all concerned. And we’ve just been putting that off and putting that off, like DIY, which we all do. Put that off. We’ll fix it later. And it’s becoming a bit too serious to leave it though.

SEAN SPEER: Well, if the Canadian and U.S. governments have been setting aside the DIY projects, the Wilson Center hasn’t. Earlier today, as a matter of fact, the Canada Institute, the Mexico Institute, and other partners held an event in conjunction with the release of a series of papers called, “North America 2.0: Forging the Continental Future”. Chris, what’s the basic insight from the series? And perhaps more importantly, why is such an agenda needed at this juncture? 

CHRISTOPHER SANDS: I think to give some encouragement to all the academics and people working on studies out there in Canada: this was a project that we started in 2017 because we knew that the president at the time, Donald Trump, was promising to renegotiate NAFTA. It was popular in Canada, even though I think Canadians were initially skeptical. Same with Mexico. They see trade benefit, they were reasonably satisfied, and yet there was this undercurrent in the United States of anger about NAFTA, wanting to tear it up. But I think it was interesting in the 2016 election, the two major candidates, Donald Trump, of course, but also Hillary Clinton, were critics who didn’t think NAFTA was a good deal. And that was a big red flag to those of us who believed in North American economic integration had a problem on our hands. So, we launched the project to think about what more could we could do. How can we improve this?

We carried on with the project all the way through the renegotiation of NAFTA that gave us the USMCA or CUSMA, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement, and then kept going, because, of course, we had authors who hadn’t finished their papers quite on time. We had to chase after some money. 

But in the end, we brought up this book, and I think in an interesting way, it’s as relevant as ever because so many of the authors were under forty and we really tried to tap into a generation that was looking forward at North America. There’s a great line, I think, that goes back to Jürgen Habermas. He, every once in a while, has a good one. And he said, “You know, the generation of Jean Monnet thought that a Europe was possible, and so moved carefully in that direction to see if they were right. But the generation of Jacques Delors (the second head of the European community) assumed that there was a Europe and tried to make it work.” And I think that’s the pivot that we saw ourselves at, and that’s what this book points to.

And if you don’t mind, my plugging it, it’s available free on the Wilson website. So, if anybody’s interested, you can download the whole thing for nothing. 

SEAN SPEER: I second those recommendations. The papers cover a wide range of topics, everything from security issues to post-secondary partnerships, and everything else down the line. It really is a comprehensive look at the relationship. 

One line stood out to me in the introduction. I want to put it to you and ask you to elaborate. It says, “NAFTA failed to generate broader social or governance results at the regional level.” Let me ask you, what might such regional arrangements look like? And is there a reason to think that there may be an appetite for starting to conceptualize such broader social or governance arrangements across the continent?

CHRISTOPHER SANDS: Well, let me take a step back and just say this about North America. We, unlike the Europeans, our negotiators built a partnership in which the sovereignty of the three countries is fully respected. There are no institutions to which we’ve delegated control. And we don’t have the problem that Europeans have had with a sort of democratic deficit where we feel that decisions are being made by people with the voters can’t throw out.

Now, that’s good, but it puts a huge burden on the governments to coordinate policy because there’s no institution that will do it for them. So, when the U.S. is thinking about how to promote the electric vehicle industry, there’s no one who necessarily is there to stop Congress from deciding to give electric vehicle subsidies to cars made 100 percent in the United States, which by the way, none exist. But there’s nothing to stop that, and Canada puts a lot of effort, as does Mexico, into trying to correct the record and help the U.S. do what it wants to do in a way that actually makes sense, as opposed to a way which is sort of a blunt force: “We want this, figure it out”. And I think in terms of regional governance, we don’t have the problem of meeting in North American parliament, but we have a problem in a public service, certainly in the U.S., to some extent in Canada and Mexico, that is not fit for purpose in terms of the North American reality you have. 

Many people have gone into public service, and you know people, I do, too, they really are domestic policy people. They know the macroeconomy, they know taxation, they know agriculture, you know, crop pests, invasive species, they know how to build a highway. But they don’t necessarily have expertise in Canadian governance, Mexican governance, or U.S. governance. I think there’s a real problem in that integration means to do the things you want to do for your own society, you have to coordinate with partners, and if you don’t know how they regulate, if you don’t know how their federation divides powers, you don’t know where to start the conversation or where to carry the conversation forward. And we’ve become aware of this. 

I hear about it a lot because it’s Washington and everybody talks to you on the metro and around. We have a problem where a lot of American officials were working really hard and like Canada but don’t know where the political third rail is on a particular issue. When will I go so far that my political appointees, let alone my secretary, is going to yank my chain, sabotage my career, because I gave away too much to the Canadians? And so, what they’ll often do is carry the discussions to a certain point and then just put up their hands, say, “Well, maybe we can talk after the election.” And it’s something that I had explained to me, because I’m rather old now, but one of my Canadian public service friends said, “It’s like the Americans are always ghosting us. We’re having a great conversation, and then that just dies. And we don’t know what happened. Was it something we said?”

But often comes down to that uncertainty. And while that was okay in 1994, 1995, we really aren’t where we need to be. And that, to me, is where the governance solution really has to come. It’s not about giving away sovereignty and going to interrupt it. It’s just about recognizing that domestic has become interdomestic. And we owe partners like Canada and Mexico better than what we are currently delivering.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s take up a concrete example in this context. Both the Canadian and U.S. governments have spoken a lot recently about so-called “friend-shoring.” Chris, what does that mean to you? And how do you think it may manifest itself in bilateral policy?

CHRISTOPHER SANDS: So I think it’s a fascinating term. John Austin, University of Michigan, and Elaine Dezenski had a paper out a couple of years ago where they talked about ally-shoring, and that was the term they used. And you know, that was fine. But one of the first objections was Mexico. Are they an ally? Well, they’re friendly, maybe, but not really an ally. You know how the words matter, and it was a little bit of a stumble out of the gate, this concept of trying to figure out what it means. 

Here’s what I would say. Driven by consumers, particularly millennials and Generation Z, and by institutional investors, money that matters to our corporations is no longer satisfied by the claims that the brand of the product they buy. They want to know more. And what that brings us to is something that we’ve talked about for a long time. They want full transparency, but also accountability in the supply chains behind the products they buy. 

I’m an old guy, doesn’t work for my generation the same way. But for a lot of younger people, probably you and a lot of The Hub‘s listeners, they express their values through what they purchase, and they want to know that they’re not supporting the destruction of the environment or forced labour in Xinjiang or whatever. And that’s pushing us in the West, I think, not just the U.S., but Japan, Korea, Western Europe, and other parts of the Western world, to develop supply chains where we have the technology, we are constantly monitoring that supply chain to make sure that all the links are verifiably what they say they are, that the content is really free of all the bad things. And that’s reinforced by the USMCA and NAFTA. 

And going back to the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement, because, unlike Europe, we don’t say it’s here, we’ll count it as low, we have a rule of origin. And that rule of origin has a very high bar. As you know, for auto 75 percent moving up as well for regular products. This is a significant thing. So, companies have dollars on the table to try to make sure that they have an accurate picture of what’s going on, not just at the top level, but all the way through the tier four, tier five supply chain. So, this is where it comes back to the importance of ally-shoring for ensuring whatever you buy. 

In order for this to work, it needs to be accountable, and that means we need to have partners for trade that are sharing our values, and our well-governed, well-regulated society that can back up the claims of the companies that yes, we’re not using forced labour. Yes, we’re not destroying the environment. You and I will remember, it wasn’t that long ago, we were having this debate about organic food. We all love organic food, except everybody was claiming to be organic, and the actual definition behind that label was very big. And some people were completely making things up because it sold products. We have to do better than that, and I think the U.S. and Canada are in a position of not only sharing the values, but sharing a real close relationship with the private sector, but also a willingness to respond to the democratic desire for clarity. 

We will see a world I think that is emerging in the next five to ten years in which Western supply chains will be distinguished by the fact that they’re transparent and accountable, and then there’ll be the China hub’s supply chains. And China will say, “You know, we’re gonna do a low price. Don’t ask us, and we won’t tell you how we got it. Just take a low price.” We’re going to be the right supply chain to be in. Better to be in the North American or European supply chains, but there are some countries that are too poor or on the wrong side of the line. They’ll go with China. That’s competition, totally fine, but we’re aiming to be at the premium end and we need the kind of partners who want to go on that journey with us. 

SEAN SPEER: It’s a great segue, Chris, into my next question. The Canadian government seems to be ramping up its rhetoric vis-à-vis China. The Industry Minister has talked recently about decoupling for the first time, and today the Foreign Affairs Minister is delivering a harder-line speech than we’ve ever seen before from this government. How much it, in your view, reflects an effort to align with developments in Washington? In other words, Chris, is a new hawkishness towards China the cost of doing business with the Americans?

CHRISTOPHER SANDS: Well, I’m afraid, I think it is. I’m always torn on the relationship with China. I worry a little bit when people older than me and in my generation are quick to sort of put the Cold War template back on it. If I can do a sort of small aside on this later, I think the U.S. struggles with an older cadre of leadership and the disempowerment of younger voices, which is something Canada has managed to arrange. Yes, AMLO is quite elderly in Mexico, but certainly, there are younger voices in government. We just haven’t done that to the extent. And so, we often fall into the trap of looking backward at today’s problems. So, whether it’s a Cold War or starting to think about high gas prices and importing ideas from the 1970s that I’d rather forget, I think we really need some refreshed leadership in the United States on these problems. 

That said, China, particularly the 20th Party Congress, has given us everything we could have wanted in Hollywood for a perfect villain, for the piece. The harsh rhetoric, the discussion of an inevitable conflict, and then you combine that with Vladimir Putin. It’s definitely pushed the U.S. into a very different posture, not just defensive but also prepared to be on offence. Flashback to 2000, I remember when George W. Bush came in this president, his father had been ambassador to China, his father the president, and there was a real fondness for China and a desire to make it work. Bill Clinton had brought China into the WTO with a lot of optimism that we could support China’s peaceful rise. And one of the first things that happened with China, it forced an American spy plane down on Hainan Island and held all of its pilots and crew as hostages, and it took several weeks for us to get them back. One of the tensest moments post-Cold War that we’ve had. 

So, even if you discount Xi Jinping, or say, “Well, that’s the rhetoric that works, he’s a bit nationalistic,” we also have to deal with a military in China that is harshly nationalistic and quite aggressive. We’ve seen a lot of their jockeying with American ships and Canadian ships in the South China Sea. They have threatened, even attacked, the Indians, they put a lot of pressure on all of their neighbours, our partners, and I’d say Canada and U.S. both are under pressure. And if U.S. and Canada are there to support them, I think we’re in a terrible position. So yes, the U.S. is taking this very seriously and avoiding military conflict. 

We’re focusing on economic conflict. You just saw the administration in the United States, the Biden administration came out and put a ban on selling microchips and microchip fashioning technology in China. That is probably the most aggressive move we ever played on China, and very reminiscent of what some of the columnists have talked about. It’s very reminiscent of what we did with regard to Japan after the invasion of Manchuria, where we decided to put them under an oil embargo, and they really had their backs to the wall and felt, “We’re going to have to strike out to get out of this box, the Americans are that serious.”

And so, when earlier, I guess it was last week, we saw François-Philippe Champagne announce that Canada was going to force divestment of three lithium mining companies from Chinese hands, that was a really well read and I think appreciated signal in the U.S., that Canada is willing to be tough, and that it understands that there’s nothing to gain by trying to play nice with the Chinese if you lose the Americans. And coming back to we’re talking a little bit about supply chains in the auto industry, the U.S. in its national security strategy, but also in the Inflation Reduction Act, define certain sources of critical minerals for our future electric vehicles as no-gos, and the countries of special concern are right now China, North Korea, Russia. And so, Canada may have acted, I think, in its own interest, but also knew that if China continues to own those companies, those resources could not help build the electric vehicles we want. And so, you start to see how this all fits together. But I think Canada is foursquare a reliable ally on this, and most Canadian companies don’t want to be on the wrong side of this either. The Americans are quite serious. 

The last comment: this is something that President Trump brought us really, this much more tough look at China, but it’s something that Biden has continued. And we often say just sort of as a textbook matter, American foreign policy doesn’t change as much as you think it does from administration to administration. This is a very powerful example of that, and whatever we think of the president’s involvement, the U.S. commitment to challenge China and not simply let them rise or threaten our neighbours is pretty serious. 

SEAN SPEER: Just a ton of insight there. Thanks a lot, Chris. If it’s okay, I’d like to now turn to yesterday’s election results. How about a big-picture question to start? How would you characterize the outcomes? What’s the big takeaway for our listeners?

CHRISTOPHER SANDS: Well, I would say a couple of things. First of all, as you will know that really isn’t a Democrat-Republican divide on Canada. Both sides of the aisle like Canada. There’s sort of a general goodwill. That isn’t to say there aren’t individuals who are mad about dairy or some other particular trade issue. You can’t count on all of them as being in your fan club. But the closely divided Congress or even a Republican-dominated or much more Democratic-dominated Congress doesn’t bode ill or well for Canada. It’s just fairly neutral. 

A second thing I would say, though, and where I think Canada has a real interest, it can be affected by the outcome of the midterms, which as we’re talking we still have some races that are undecided, including some important ones to control the Senate still up in the air is the ability of the U.S. government to actually function. Unlike parliament, we have a system that is deliberately designed to make it difficult to move fast and slow on most issues. You’ve seen, even with Democratic majorities, albeit small ones, how little was able to get done in the past few years. 

Canada has a stake in the U.S. continuing to promote a transition to a more carbon-neutral economy. Canada has an interest in the U.S. having the security posture and the weaponry, etc., to not only give out of our inventory what we can do for Ukraine today but making sure we then still have some ammo available, should we have to have a confrontation with China or Russia. And I think this is a really crucial piece. Whether it’s Republicans or Democrats in charge, you have to be able to vote in our interests, we have to be able to lead the West, and if we spent all our time fighting among ourselves, I don’t think we get a good outcome for Canada. So, that’s not really about you, but it’s about the consequences of a dysfunctional Washington.

Looking at where we are now, I think if the Republicans have a little bit more responsibility, that’s good. Because of what we saw during the Clinton administration and later in the Obama administration, both presidents came in and won Democratic majorities. They were Democrats, and won Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. And in their first two years, they pushed bold initiatives: the Affordable Care Act, and of course, before that, Bill Clinton’s attempt at doing health care reform. They did so on a very party-line basis, and they were opposed pretty much uniformly by the Republicans. And then they lost their control of Congress in the subsequent midterm. And I think Barack Obama famously called it a shellacking, which is a word I don’t associate with the mean streets of Chicago, but it was a good one.

But what happened after was both presidents had some of their most productive years. Now, why? Because I think they can say to the margins of their party, who are important to them, “You know, we don’t necessarily agree with the Republicans, we have to get things done for the American people, and that means compromise. So, we can’t have the pie-in-the-sky progressive dream project. We have to work with Republicans and without liking them.” But I think that’s really important. And the Biden administration has done an incredible amount of important policymaking in its two years. But if the outcome of this election is a pivot to the centre of focus on the need to compromise and get things done and to be even-handed. Democrats trying to go it alone, but also Republicans sitting on their hands unwilling to help. That’s not what you expect from people in the national interest, and I’m hopeful that this election will indicate a little bit more functionality out of Washington, and that will be good for Canada. 

SEAN SPEER: It’s just worth noting, in parentheses, that even leading up to the 2020 election there was some speculation that the Biden team wouldn’t have lamented, at least in private, had the Republicans held on to the Senate precisely to offer that kind of offset to progressive ambitions in the House. So, your point is well taken, Chris. 

Notwithstanding your observations about the risk for dysfunction or paralysis, the last Congress did produce some bipartisanship, including probably the best example being the CHIPS legislation and the rebuilding of the American economy with an eye towards China. Are there any areas of shared interests and perspectives between the two parties that may find bipartisan solutions in a new divided Congress?

CHRISTOPHER SANDS: Well, alright. That’s my wish list. It won’t happen just like my wish list for Santa won’t happen, but there are a couple of things.

We’re early days of a return in Washington to a kind of industrial policy, putting a lot of money into pushing the private sector to move in a hurry in a direction we want to go. I know you’re an orthodox economist on these things. Me too. I worry about public money picking winners in the private sector. The tendency for industrial policy to go off the rails is a long-standing one, and it worries me a little bit. But one thing that we’ve seen already is so much money put in with a particular tie to a”Has to be done in the U.S.” And we’ve heard already from automakers about the concern that all the subsidies for establishing battery manufacturer with EMI and others in batteries, or even EV storage for home household use. GM now has a GM energy unit that’s going to build similar to the car battery that somebody can have in your house to even out peak and trough areas–that what we’re doing now puts our allies like Canada, but especially Europe, South Korea, which is there’s a lot of work in this area, at a disadvantage, because there are billions of dollars available for locating here, and no dollars available will be there. 

Now, in her fiscal update, the mini-budget, Chrystia Freeland said, “We are going to find the money you’re going to compete, we want to make sure Canada can still participate.” And I do want to see those batteries get built, I do want to see the corporations make the investments we need. But as we saw with wheat exports, going back to the Canadian Wheat Board days when the two countries are playing a subsidy war, it’s not good for the taxpayer, and it’s not always good for outcomes. So, while I support the intervention, I think, as early as possible, we have to have a ceasefire, so that we are being more open to the fact that corporations, for their own reasons, for economic reasons, will locate things where they have to locate things, and they’ll access money. 

But we cannot rob neighbours, we can’t beggar our neighbours, and get all the good stuff for ourselves and then turn to those neighbours and say, “Oh, by the way, you’re our ally, we expect you to spend more money on defence.” There has to be some exchange there, and I think it was more a not well-thought-through congressional plan than a deliberate attempt to hurt Canada or anybody else. But you know, that’s easy to say now, you still have to fix it. And we’re early days, I hope we can fix it. 

SEAN SPEER: During the Trump years, the Canadian government cultivated a network of congressional state-level and business relationships to keep our issues on the radar. In light of the election results, in practical terms, Chris, what should the Canadian government be doing to advance the country’s interests?

CHRISTOPHER SANDS: I’ll say a couple of things as near as we can tell of the 36 states that had gubernatorial elections, for the most part, everyone’s reelected, there are very few changes. That’s important and often overlooked in Canada-U.S. relations because states have been really important partners for Canada. And I think that that is a sign of stability, even though we may see Congress change hands. And I would also say that this is an area where the Trudeau government, but also other parties at the federal level and provincial governments, have really worked through regional partnerships, whether it’s the Pacific Northwest economic region, the Council of the Great Lakes region, New England governors and Eastern Canadian premiers, all the organizations that hold our communities together. They’ve worked at all levels to send not a partisan message, a message that Canada is an important ally, they’re more important than you think, and we’re here to tell you just how what you’re doing might have an unintended consequence for us. And you have to have that dialogue. Never assume ill will, but I think it’s safe to assume that all of our legislators and officials may not be aware. I won’t say the harsher than that, and so, I think that’s that’s job one. 

Job two, which is related. We did see new voices, new faces come into Congress. And I said earlier, that I think one of the problems the U.S. has is older leadership that has been a bit more backward-looking. Now there’s an upside to that. Canada’s been a friend for a long time, so you know, the old timers all know Canada was a friend back when and so that carries over. But we have a rising generation of 30-somethings and 40-somethings that got elected here. They got elected to state office, but especially to Congress, we’ve seen some younger senators coming in, who are going to be important and potentially around for a long time. Again, I wouldn’t assume ill will. In fact, I would assume only that they haven’t dealt with Canada and they need to come up to speed. So sadly, it means gotta get to work. 

And I think it’s not just Canada. Canada, Mexico, and other allies, but especially here in North America, when so many issues criss-cross, it’s important to reintroduce yourself and get to know the New Kids on the Block. I guess that’s a reference that dates me. Backstreet Boys, no, no, but there’s a K-pop reference that would make you cool here but I am not good enough. But I will say, just a lot of new people in the end. When they’re present, when they are sitting in a committee making a tough decision, they’re harder to get their attention. But as they’re freshmen, or you know first-timers, when they’re just trying to find their feet, if you can talk to their staffers, if you can talk to them, if you can impress upon them the friendship, the goodwill, but also then the seriousness of working together, then I think you make the right impression: the impression Canadians always make, which is fundamentally, at the end of the day, Canada’s on the same side as the Americans. We just want to do this in a way that’s mutually beneficial.

SEAN SPEER: That’s similarly some great insight. I’m even familiar with some examples, Chris, of instances where we have members of parliament, whose ridings buck up against members of Congress who’ve worked together on bilateral issues between their political riding and congressional districts. So, there are many ways in which that kind of effort to build bridges and familiarize new members of Congress with bilateral issues can be carried out.

Let me just ask a final question. As a small “p” political observer, are there any issues that came up in the race that may come to manifest themselves in our politics? Any issues or strategies or tactics that you’ve observed that we may look for in coming Canadian elections?

CHRISTOPHER SANDS: I think that there are a number of things about modern politics, they’re manifesting themselves in Canada as well. I mean, if we went back a decade, it was attack ads. They’ve been certain kinds of micro-targeting of political campaigns. Now we’re seeing a couple of things. Campaign finance, small donors from all over the place, as well as some big donors, you have a more manageable system. But as we saw with the freedom convoy, there were Americans giving money in a Canadian campaign, and that can also flow both ways. So, very tricky to manage. 

Also, a disintermediation of the conversation. When Ted Cruz talks about what he thinks about Canada in a race in Texas, it’s gonna get picked up, and it could have an effect on your election. I think our campaign and our electoral officials have tried to say, “Well, how can we stop it?” But I’m afraid what we have to do instead is become more mature about it. Just like with fake news, there will be misinformation and disturbing information out there. The only real answer is to revive critical thinking and have people look at, you know, double-check what they see. We can all hope for better human nature. It doesn’t always come, so we’re also going to have to have some guardrails.

But our issues across the border all the time, and one thing that has come out of the United States recently, which I think transcends party lines, is a feeling that in the last decade or so of globalization, maybe going back to 2008 and the financial crisis, we’ve had a situation where our elite establishment voices have done just fine. But globalization has really put the squeeze on families and ordinary people, and that’s created a kind of populism, which is maybe mischaracterized as populism. It’s also a little bit anti-elitism, anti-establishment, system, and it’s affected both U.S. political parties. I think it has resonance in Canada as well. 

Now, you can respond to that by trying to cancel people who complain at school board meetings or who have unpolished views. But I think the more mature approach that American and Canadian establishments should take is a little humility, and recognize that this is democracy, everyone has a right to have their point of view. They may not express it well, but it’s a foolish politician, and certainly no democrat who tries to dismiss it out of him or argues that somebody who protests the government in a peaceful manner should somehow be called an election denier or cancelled out of any sort of public space. 

Words matter and I think our establishments in both cases, partly because they’re stressed out by the challenges that we face, had been a little too quick to dismiss ordinary people. Most of our voters in both countries, I think, have a goodwill towards the country, and a suspicion of politicians. That is part of our birthright, so we have to persuade them. We have to win them over. We have to rebuild coalitions. And, I think, that’s all the technology aside, I think that’s the healing that we have to do in our politics. 

We can look at somebody like AMLO, Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico, and he’s a cantankerous old guy, but he is also a populist, and he’s done some good, I think, for Mexicans and convincing them that they can stand up to the United States, but also support North America and hanging there. And so, you know, populist, and all that. I think that’s an important thing to remember as our middle class and certainly our working class folks are getting squeezed by inflation, and so many of the other problems the global economy poses. 

And I’ll just add one more thing, because to link it to the earlier part of the conversation, for ensuring decoupling from China taking a harder line, everything is going to get more expensive, and it’s going to be more expensive to produce things because we don’t have cheap Chinese inputs. Well, that’s long-run a good thing, but it’s also going to come out of people’s quality of life. And this is my challenge for all three of our countries going forward, and you’re going to immediately dismiss this as pie in the sky, but I’m going to say it anyway. We have to find savings, cost savings in our supply chains, and one that would make a huge difference would be improvement in public sector productivity, and I mean something very specific by that. 

If you’re going to regulate a product, can we find a way to get a good decision more quickly than we now do? And when you’re trying to build a pipeline, can we get a good decision that sticks that doesn’t take several years before the investors can actually start building? It’s not about the outcome, what the outcome be what it must, but let’s make decisions faster. And my concrete suggestion in this, we need to do a new agreement for North America on mutual recognition of regulation, so that we can argue that the Canadian regulation of Cheerios or child car seats has fundamentally the same purposes as the U.S., so it’s functionally equivalent. And if a small business gets approved in Canada, where they know their regulators, it’s good to sell all over North America. I think things like that that eliminate unnecessary duplicative tests, that eliminate debates about minor differences in the measurements we prefer and let business do what it needs to do and spend less time trying to please regulators, I think is a net positive for all of us. But those are the kind of ideas we need. I don’t expect we’re going to get them for maybe some of the older leadership, but this is my sad attempt. It’s simple like the kids that I’m talking about interesting ideas.

SEAN SPEER: If critical thinking is an antidote to some of the issues and challenges that you raised earlier, then I would recommend listeners to have listened to this episode. Christopher Sands, director of the Wilson Center’s Canada Institute and adjunct professor of Canadian Studies at John Hopkins University, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

CHRISTOPHER SANDS: Thank you, Sean. It’s been a pleasure.

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