Sunday, August 28, 2011

From the US, a "Strategic" Picture of Canada

Here are some bits from a publication in the US talking about the strategic position of the US, its neighbors, and the world. Here I'll pick out the Canadian references. This is all very well understood in Canada but most Americans really don't know:
Canada’s maritime transport zones are far superior to those of Mexico but pale in comparison to those of the United States. Its first, the Great Lakes, not only requires engineering but is shared with the United States. The second, the St. Lawrence Seaway, is a solid option (again with sufficient engineering), but it services a region too cold to develop many dense population centers. None of Canada boasts naturally navigable rivers, often making it more attractive for Canada’s provinces — in particular the prairie provinces and British Columbia — to integrate with the United States, where transport is cheaper, the climate supports a larger population and markets are more readily accessible. Additionally, the Canadian Shield greatly limits development opportunities. This vast region — which covers more than half of Canada’s landmass and starkly separates Quebec City, Montreal, Toronto and the prairie provinces — consists of a rocky, broken landscape perfect for canoeing and backpacking but unsuitable for agriculture or habitation.


In the north, the Great Lakes are obviously an ideal break point in the middle of the border region, but the specific location of the line along the rest of the border is largely irrelevant. East of the lakes, low mountains and thick forests dominate the landscape — not the sort of terrain to generate a power that could challenge the U.S. East Coast. The border here could theoretically lie anywhere between the St. Lawrence Seaway and Massachusetts without compromising the American population centers on the East Coast (although, of course, the farther north the line is the more secure the East Coast will be). West of the lakes is flat prairie that can be easily crossed, but the land is too cold and often too dry, and, like the east, it cannot support a large population. So long as the border lies north of the bulk of the Missouri River’s expansive watershed, the border’s specific location is somewhat academic, and it becomes even more so when one reaches the Rockies.

On the far western end of the U.S.-Canada border is the only location where there could be some border friction. The entrance to Puget Sound — one of the world’s best natural harbors — is commanded by Vancouver Island. Most of the former is United States territory, but the latter is Canadian — in fact, the capital of British Columbia, Victoria, sits on the southern tip of that strategic island for precisely that reason. However, the fact that British Columbia is more than 3,000 kilometers from the Toronto region and that there is a 12:1 population imbalance between British Columbia and the American West Coast largely eliminates the possibility of Canadian territorial aggression.


The first land threat to the young United States was in essence the second phase of the Revolutionary War — a rematch between the British Empire and the young United States in the War of 1812. That the British navy could outmatch anything the Americans could float was obvious, and the naval blockade was crushing to an economy dependent upon coastal traffic. Geopolitically, the most critical part of the war was the participation of semi-independent British Canada. It wasn’t so much Canadian participation in any specific battle of the war (although Canadian troops did play a leading role in the sacking of Washington in August 1814) as it was that Canadian forces, unlike the British, did not have a supply line that stretched across the Atlantic. They were already in North America and, as such, constituted a direct physical threat to the existence of the United States.

Canada lacked many of the United States’ natural advantages even before the Americans were able to acquire the Louisiana Territory. First and most obvious, Canada is far enough north that its climate is far harsher than that of the United States, with all of the negative complications one would expect for population, agriculture and infrastructure. What few rivers Canada has neither interconnect nor remain usable year round. While the Great Lakes do not typically freeze, some of the river connections between them do. Most of these river connections also have rapids and falls, greatly limiting their utility as a transport network. Canada has made them more usable via grand canal projects, but the country’s low population and difficult climate greatly constrain its ability to generate capital locally. Every infrastructure project comes at a great opportunity cost, such a high cost that the St. Lawrence Seaway — a series of locks that link the St. Lawrence River to the Great Lakes and allow full ocean access — was not completed until 1959.

Canada is also greatly challenged by geography. The maritime provinces — particularly Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island — are disconnected from the Canadian landmass and unable to capitalize on what geographic blessings the rest of the country enjoys. They lack even the option of integrating south with the Americans and so are perennially poor and lightly populated compared to the rest of the country. Even in the modern day, what population centers Canada does have are geographically sequestered from one another by the Canadian Shield and the Rocky Mountains.

As time advanced, none of Canada’s geographic weaknesses worked themselves out. Even the western provinces — British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba — are linked to Canada’s core by only a single transport corridor that snakes 1,500 kilometers through the emptiness of western and central Ontario north of Lake Superior. All four provinces have been forced by geography and necessity to be more economically integrated with their southern neighbors than with their fellow Canadian provinces.

Such challenges to unity and development went from being inconvenient and expensive to downright dangerous when the British ended their involvement in the War of 1812 in February 1815. The British were exhausted from the Napoleonic Wars in Europe and, with the French Empire having essentially imploded, were more interested in reshaping the European balance of power than re-engaging the Americans in distant North America. For their part, the Americans were mobilized, angry and — remembering vividly the Canadian/British sacking of Washington — mulling revenge. This left a geographically and culturally fractured Canada dreading a long-term, solitary confrontation with a hostile and strengthening local power. During the following decades, the Canadians had little choice but to downgrade their ties to the increasingly disinterested British Empire, adopt political neutrality vis-a-vis Washington, and begin formal economic integration with the United States. Any other choice would have put the Canadians on the path to another war with the Americans (this time likely without the British), and that war could have had only one outcome.

With its northern border secured, the Americans set about excising as much other extra-hemispheric influence from North America as possible.


Just as the American plan for dealing with Canada was shaped by Canada’s geographic weakness, Washington’s efforts to first shield against and ultimately take over parts of Mexico were shaped by Mexico’s geographic shortcomings.
The author doesn't dwell on it, but US-Canada relations have been one-sided. The US demands and Canada/Britain compromises, as for example, by giving the US most of what it wanted with the Oregon compromise:
  • Originally this territory was part of the vast HBC (Hudson Bay Company) empire of fur trapping. From Wikipedia:
    Throughout the 1820s and 1830s, the HBC controlled nearly all trading operations in the Pacific Northwest, based out of the company headquarters at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River. Although authority over the region was nominally shared by the United States and Britain through the Anglo-American Convention of 1818, company policy, enforced via Chief Factor John McLoughlin of the company's Columbia District, was to discourage U.S. settlement of the territory. The company's effective monopoly on trade virtually forbade any settlement in the region. It established Fort Boise in 1834 (in present-day southwestern Idaho) to compete with the American Fort Hall, 483 km (300 miles) to the east. In 1837, it purchased Fort Hall, also along the route of the Oregon Trail, where the outpost director displayed the abandoned wagons of discouraged settlers to those seeking to move west along the trail.


    During the 1820s and 1830s, HBC trappers were deeply involved in the early exploration and development of Northern California. Company trapping brigades were sent south from Fort Vancouver, along what became known as the Siskiyou Trail, into Northern California as far south as the San Francisco Bay Area. These trapping brigades in Northern California faced serious risks, and were often the first to explore relatively uncharted territory.

  • This early foothold was simply ignored when the 1846 Oregon "compromise" was settled. Initially the US wanted to take everything up to the parallel 54°40′ north, but was bargained into "only" taking the Oregon and Washington state territories.
Most Americans are treated to a triumphalist history, the infamous Manifest Destiny, which had God giving this land to the deserving Americans. The above "strategic" discussion of America is a healthy antidote to that nonsense. The US was hewn out of its neighbors by a designing, grasping, and ambitious political class in Washington DC. Read the whole document to see how the US treated Canada, Mexico, Spain, Hawaii, and the rest of the world.

But even this isn't the whole story. It ignores the outrages of suppressing democracy in the Philipines, the gunboat diplomacy in China, the outrageous "United Fruit" diplomacy in Central and Latin America, and the budding "new Rome" where the US, as the sole Colossus standing after WWII, built a vast empire of military bases around the world and brought war to many, many countries all cynically in the name of "democracy" or of "helping an ally". Think of US policies in South America, and a good example is how the US killed the legally elected president of Chile, Salvator Allende. Such a friendly gesture!

No comments: