Facing reality

From the April 2022 print edition

The COVID-19 pandemic should have been a wake-up call for North America. Through no fault of our own, we were impacted by a pathogen that originated in China. We’re still not sure whether it came from a wet market, or if something man-made escaped from a lab. On one hand, how COVID-19 started matters profoundly. But on the other hand, it doesn’t. Because we are so reliant on a global supply chain where China is the central player, we can’t afford to pursue the truth too aggressively. We, and here I refer to Canada and the US, had already effectively surrendered our sovereignty.

This should have been a wake-up call. Once the crisis part of COVID-19 had passed (which was at least a good year ago), we should have taken stock of where we were. We should have taken a step back and differentiated between the essential and the superfluous. What do I mean by that? When push comes to shove, what matters most are secure borders and self-sufficiency in the essentials of life, which means food, energy and technologies that would include pharmaceuticals and computer chips. But the Ukraine crisis exposes how non-existent our thinking has been on the most important issues.

Canada is uniquely blessed. We share a border with the world’s foremost economic and military superpower. We are protected from hostile powers on both the east and west by two huge oceans. We are blessed by abundant natural resources, in particular oil and natural gas. Canada’s enlightened and self-interested immigration policies mean that we cull the best and brightest from around the world. This is good for our economy and good for our social fabric as we integrate grateful, hard-working people from the four corners of the earth. We have been so blessed that we have allowed ourselves to become both naïve and soft.

Let’s return to the Ukraine-Russia conflict. There are two possible explanations for the invasion. The first is that Russia was threatened by Ukraine’s desire to join the NATO alliance and acted pre-emptively to prevent it. The other is that Vladimir Putin has grandiose dreams of empire building, trying to resurrect the borders of what was once known as the Soviet Union. My guess is that soon after this column is published, there will be a negotiated settlement where some Ukrainian territory is ceded to Russia, and Ukraine will remain somewhat autonomous. There’s a good reason why this will be the case.

North American terms
Germany, Western Europe’s leader, made itself reliant on Russian energy. This was short-sighted and foolish and it’s Angela Merkel’s true legacy. It’s yet another lesson for North America. We can insulate ourselves from the rest of the world. It is much more the case that the other continents need North America more than we need them, and we can and should engage on terms that are acceptable to us.
It should start with Canada and the US withdrawing from NATO and other international bodies like the United Nations. Then we can negotiate our own unique trade and military treaties with individual countries. Our economic policy would be captured pithily with “North American Self-Sufficiency.”

There should be free trade between the US and Canada. Then there should be a common trade policy with the rest of the world, something that economists refer to as a customs union. North America would jointly announce tariffs that would start at moderate levels and gradually, over time, would increase until we let the invisible hand of the market transform our economies and we would produce all the essential goods and services we need.

There should have been an important economic lesson that we learned from COVID-19 and the shutdown of the North American economy. So much of what many of us do is completely superfluous. I think of the salons that dot Yonge Street in Toronto, where mostly women are getting their nails done. If that service stopped, would we really be worse off?

I consider my own full-time vocation (post-secondary teacher) and think about all the confused young people who are wasting their time with degrees and designations that will burden them with both debt and bitterness at the end of their academic journeys.

Let’s start acting like mature, responsible adults. It starts with a precise definition of our vital interests. I have already made my view clear: at its core, it is economic independence. Military security is guaranteed by the US and otherwise we should avoid the “foreign entanglements” that America’s first president, George Washington, warned about over 220 years ago. We should condemn any offensive military incursions as immoral. We should extend humanitarian aid and accept carefully vetted refugees to join in the Canadian experience. But we should simultaneously understand that the world is a dangerous place and our national interest, properly understood, should be put first.

Toronto-based Michael Hlinka provides business commentary to CBC Radio One and a column syndicated across the CBC network.