At first glance, it is perhaps not surprising that the Canadian public is increasingly skeptical of cooperating with the United States. In several highly sensitive incidents, the Canadian government moved in an opposite direction from the United States. In 2003 Canada made the decision not to send troops to Iraq as part of an allied coalition and in 2013 the Harper government pulled Canadian forces out of Afghanistan earlier than the US expected. Within NATO, Canadian defense contributions have fallen below the agreed upon 2 percent of GDP, a point of contention between US and Canadian defense planners. Whether public opinion is leading government decisions or the reverse there are plenty of examples in which the two countries are moving in opposite directions. But, at the same time a September 2014 NANOS poll showed 53% of Canadians say they approve of sending Canadian troops to the Middle East to help stop Islamic extremists in Iraq or Syria as part of a NATO military force (43% disapprove). What is going on?
Rather than a relationship adrift, it is perhaps better to characterize the publics as war weary and discriminating when it comes to the use of military force. For example, the authors of the Globe and Mail piece focused on decreasing support in Canada for closer cooperation on antiterrorism measures. From 2005 to today, Canadian support for closer cooperation on anti-terrorism measures dropped 16 percentage points from 73% to 57%. But the authors overlooked the fact that there has been a steady and parallel decline in both the United States and Canada for such measures, and this probably says more about declining fears of terrorism than it does about US-Canada relations. From 2005 to today, Americans support for closer cooperation on anti-terrorism measures dropped more than 14 percentage points from 86% to 72%, very similar to the drop in Canadian public support.
Our own Chicago Council Survey data found similar results. Just after the September 11 attacks in the United States, nine in ten Americans said that international terrorism was a critical threat and should be a top goal for US foreign policy. But concern over terrorism has abated since then, steadily decreasing over time, with only a modest uptick after October's ISIS beheadings. (Canada may experience a similar but temporary uptick in the wake of last month’s attack on the Parliament.)
In fact, one of the most striking finding of the Council's 2014 biennial survey of how Americans think about foreign policy is that since 1974, Americans have consistently expressed reluctance to use military force to solve international problems, especially when doing so involves putting “boots on the ground.” This is true unless they feel directly threatened, if they expect the response to be relatively low cost and low risk, or in case of a humanitarian disaster. For most international problems, our survey shows that American’s are looking to nonmilitary responses to security threats. This accords with Nanos’ survey data although suggests a different rationale for it.
Is is therefore not surprising to us that the same NANOS/UB poll shows that large majorities of Canadians (75%) and Americans (84%) still support working together “to develop an integrated energy policy to remove any dependence on Middle East oil.” Business and trade links are also strong among public. An October 2013 EKOS poll showed that majorities of both Canadians (80%) and Americans (65%) agree that there should be free trade in the US, Canada and Mexico.