WILL THE CLINTON CONTAGION CROSS THE BORDER AND CHANGE THE SHAPE OF CANADIAN POLITICS?
He appealed to the youth of America to help repair the torn social fabric of the world’s most prosperous and powerful nation. He assured older Americans that their country still needs them when they are 64, or more, and “still young in spirit.” He asked America’s friends and allies to join together “to shape change, lest it engulf us.” At his inauguration as the 42nd President of the United States on Jan. 20, Bill Clinton used the word change 11 times in his address from the west front of the Capitol building. In a speech that spanned only 14 minutes, he spoke the words new, renew and renewal 17 times. As the 46-year-old Democrat put an end to 12 years of government by two Republican senior citizens, Ronald Reagan and George Bush, the appeal of Clinton’s political style was as piercingly clear as the swinging saxophone that he played for thousands of celebrants on a tour of inauguration balls that Washington night.
For many Americans, and others, the new President’s political substance is less clear. Before and since his election on Nov. 3, Clinton has been part liberal promise, part conservative reaction. As a result, his long-term impact on life in the United States—and in Canada, as well as the rest of the world—is as uncertain as the grammar in a song that he played at one of the 11 celebrations that he attended with First Lady and White House policy adviser Hillary Clinton, Your Momma Don’t Dance and Your Daddy Don’t Rock ’n ’ Roll.
Within 48 hours of Bill Clinton’s insistence that his government will dance to a different beat than its predecessors, Washington was performing to familiar old refrains—an air attack on Iraq; the withdrawal under a cloud of Clinton’s nominee for attorney general, Zoë Baird, and notice of a judicial challenge to a pro-Canada ruling under the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.
Even if Clinton’s emphasis on change and social renewal proves in the long run to have been more rhetorical than real, and if he persists in the ready resort to force that marked the foreign policy of his predecessors, the President’s Fleetwood Mac style (“Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow”), if dated, at least carries the appeal of being fresher than anything offered on the hustings of North America for years.
And if that fresh message is contagious across borders, as is so often the case with American fashions, the Clinton presidency’s most imminent impact on Canada will be on the Canadian federal election in 1993. By comparison, none of the Canadian party leaders seems ready to carry off a campaign that promises a brighter, more exciting tomorrow. And the leader most immediately challenged by the Clinton example is Prime Minister Brian Mulroney who, during a farewell weekend visit with Bush and the inauguration festivities that followed, delayed a decision on whether to contest the next election or step aside as leader of the Canadian Conservatives.
As for longer-term Clinton influences on Canada, analysts have searched largely in vain for clues in the record, the words and the recent Washington appointments of the former governor of Arkansas. But the absence of any known active interest in Canada by the new President leaves both countries with a clean slate on which to devise a fresh relationship— a case for Canadians asking not what Clinton can do for Canada, but what Canada can do for America, and itself.
A more independent foreign policy in Canada, for one thing, might provide Clinton with a modest example and advice on how to pursue what he called “bold, persistent experimentation” in the face of powerful pressures against change in establishment Washington. For eight years, with Mulroney in admiring lockstep with Reagan and Bush, important aspects of Canadian foreign policy were effectively made in Washington. That was a sharp departure from Ottawa’s longstanding policy of forging a more contemplative and independent development of a unique global role. A world outlook across broader horizons than the Ottawa-Washington axis faces further erosion now. Canada’s retreat from some UN peacekeeping missions and NATO assignments in Europe will diminish opportunities whereby thousands of Canadians were able to live and learn overseas, enriching Canada with a knowledge of life and ideas beyond North America.
In the past, Canadian governments of different partisan stripes made use of their less insular policies to offer their next-door neighbor persuasive and respected advice in foreign affairs. Clinton, in a pre-inauguration interview, defended the freedom of any citizen “to differ with the policy of my country,” as he himself did during the Vietnam War. And in a move during the Inauguration Day parade that might be taken as a symbol of his readiness to keep an open mind to new approaches, when he left the presidential limousine to finish the final couple of blocks on foot, Bill Clinton veered neither left nor right. He kept carefully to the middle of the road.
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