Let’s consider a dovetail between the U.S. flameout in Iraq and last Monday’s election. Seriously. This is not a matter of turning from our little local voting exercise back to heavy global politics. They are both part of one historical current.

I say flameout, although the official term is “successful handover of sovereignty.” Right. As The Guardian said, “Behind silver miles of new razor wire, high concrete barriers stronger than most medieval fortifications, behind sandbags, five security checks, U.S. armoured vehicles, U.S. armoured soldiers, special forces of various countries and private security guards, behind secrecy and a fear of killing . . . an American bureaucrat handed a piece of paper to an Iraqi judge, jumped on a helicopter and left the country.” They did it two days earlier than scheduled so terrorists and dead-enders wouldn’t get a chance to disrupt the plan. Uh, they already had.

A lot was at stake for the United States in Iraq. For 10 years after the Cold War’s end, it was the sole superpower. Its model of free markets, deregulation and privatization (code name: globalization) seemed destined to prevail everywhere. Resistance was futile, though a few dead-enders in Seattle and Quebec City didn’t know.

Then came 9/11, and time to assert that super power. First in Iraq, then on to the rest of the axis of evil. George Bush put the choice clearly: Join us or be counted among the forces of evil. The basic issue for all other nations became: Do you accept U.S. dominance, and so its diktat in every crucial area, or do you act as if an independent stance is possible? Given the awesome economic and military strength of the United States, it didn’t seem a hard choice to make. Tony Blair made it easily. Others, including Canada (to a point) demurred. Theirs was the harder choice to understand.

Yet it unravelled. There will be no Sherman’s march through Iran, North Korea etc. The United States can barely keep the lid on in the two basket-case nations it “conquered,” Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor has its economic model fared well; all recent attempts at global trade deals have failed. The nations that made the unlikely bet not to park their nationhood under the U.S. shadow look more plausible than even they might have expected.

Now, where does this intersect with our fractious election? Well, thanks to Stephen Harper, this crucial choice was clearly posed. He may have been ready to debate the United States a bit on softwood lumber or Western beef, but on core economic and military matters, he was ready, aye ready, like earlier Canadian leaders in relation to an earlier irresistible superpower. Stephen Harper had a good moment near the start of the campaign when he said you don’t have to be a Liberal to be Canadian. But he failed to prove he was a case in point. When he tried to deny he had backed sending our troops to Iraq, the opposition rightly said he was dissembling.

(Negative ads, I can’t resist blurting, are not objectionable, they’re not even negative. They’re either informative or misleading, like positive ads.)

Instead, the choice voters made overwhelmingly (if you add the votes won by Liberal, NDP and Bloc, which hold similar positions on the United States) was to try to stand outside the U.S. shadow. This choice is no longer just the old question of how close to the United States a Canadian government should get, or how much distance it can safely keep.

It has become a new question, because it is no longer only about U.S.-Canada relations. It is about the entire global structure of power and even (I wish it didn’t sound so grandiose) the future of the planet.

This kind of choice may also imply a revival of nationalism, in Canada and elsewhere, in the post-globalizing, post-superpower age. Or perhaps it isn’t nationalism, which has had a bad rep for the last century, so much as what British writer Tom Nairn prefers to call plain old nationhood. Nairn, come to think of it, once wrote an optimistic book called The Break-up of Britain, about the demise of grandiose agglomerated superpowers, in favour of smaller, unaggrandizing mere nations.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.