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Book Review: Uneasy Neighbo(u)rs

Review by Joseph T. Jockel/St. Lawrence University
From The International Journal, Spring 2008

Uneasy Neighbo(u)rs: Canada, The USA and the Dynamics of State, Industry, and Culture by David Jones and David Kilgour, Ontario, Canada: Mississauga: John Wiley & Sons Canada, 2007. 352pp. $33.99 cloth (ISBN 978-0470153062)

If Canada and the United States are best friends, “like it or not,” as the Socred leader Robert Thompson once famously put it 40 or so years ago, then according to David T. Jones and David Kilgour our two countries today “are certainly in a ‘not’ portion of the cycle as the relationship moves further into the 21st century” (2). Jones is a former US diplomat who served in Ottawa and who in recent years, especially through a spate of thoughtful journal articles, has established himself as a well-known Canada hand. Kilgour is a former politician who served for many years as a member of parliament for Alberta under both the Progressive Conservative and Liberal colours, and as an independent. They have together written a broad work that addresses the state and prospects of the Canada-US relationship, compares the two countries, and describes many aspects of each country in considerable detail.

These two former practitioners of the diplomatic and political arts are not especially interested in getting anywhere deep into the kind of theoretical approaches that many scholars of Canada-US relations tend to love. The Canada-US relationship, they say, can simply be thought of “as akin to an accordion being played: regularly moving and squeezing closer and then changing harmony by pilling back. It is also analogous to the psychologist’s approach/avoidance concept in which, as two bodies move closer, the forces to be overcome increase and push them back apart” (2). To be sure, the success of the Canada-US free trade agreement, followed by the North American free trade agreement, has drawn the two countries together over the past decade or so. Yet this has been offset by disagreements over foreign policy, including the land mines treaty, the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto accord on global warming and, of course, the liberation of Iraq from Saddam Hussein. There has also been by a growing awareness of some social differences between Americans and Canadians. The result is an overall crankiness that spills over into the economic sector, especially on the Canadian side, where such disputes as softwood lumber and Canadian beef exports to the US are made into bigger deals than they really are. Therefore, Jones and Kilgour are not expecting much change in the Canada-US relationship in the immediate future, especially not towards any steps that would deepen the trading relationship, such as a common currency or a customs union. Where the Canada-US relationship is going right now, they conclude, is “nowhere” (305).

The authors make it clear that they are similarly uninterested in obsessing over any overarching theories, ranging from Michael Adams’s notion of “fire and ice” to Seymour Martin Lipset’s conceptions of individualism and collectivism, that explain differences between the essential natures of two countries. As well, they underline that just looking for differences is an unproductive approach. After all, there are broad similarities between the two countries, as well. Nonetheless those differences are real. They are “distinctive, defining—but not definitive” (2). They result in what Jones and Kilgour call “alternative North Americas” on each side of the border.

Much of the book is devoted to examining those “alternative North Americas,” with chapters on national identity and self-image; democratic culture and practices; economic and resource management; culture, education, and religion; approaches to health care, crime and substance abuse, world roles, military defence, and human rights. In each, Kilgour writes about Canada and Jones about the United States, with the other chiming in from time to time and a summary with some more comparisons in a final chapter. There are thus no endless forced comparisons between the two countries to slog through, fact by fact, national statistic by national statistic. Nor are Kilgour and Jones always writing about precisely the same thing in the same chapter, reflecting the underlining realities of their two countries as well as their own individual takes. For example, the starting point for Kilgour in writing about Canadian identity is dealing with Québec; for Jones the American identity begins with patriotism and notions of US exceptionalism.

It is in these sections devoted to each country that the book really shines as each author writes about his own country and what is on his mind. Their goal probably was to inform citizens of one country about the facts of life in the other. Here, for example, Canadians can read Jones’s explanation of how health care really works in the US, while Americans can learn from Kilgour about the role of energy in the Alberta and Canadian economies. Of course it certainly would not hurt Americans and Canadians to read the sections about their own countries, either.

In short, Uneasy Neighbo(u)rs skips the theoretical jargon, is written is lively terms, and deals with the bilateral relationship, Canada-US comparisons, and each country individually. In their introduction to the volume, Kilgour and Jones write that their intent is “to move beyond the hothouse of ‘Canada studies’ both in the US (a much larger domain than Canadians might think) and Canada” (xv). Ironically, they have produced a work that can serve splendidly as a textbook for university courses either in that academic hothouse or in the one right next door that is devoted to Canada-US relations.


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