November 3, 2014 | By Dina Smeltz

A Second Look at US-Canada Relations

A recent Globe and Mail article referenced new survey data from Nanos Research/UB Survey characterizing a relationship “adrift” between Americans and Canadians. Based on public opinion surveys conducted in both countries, the article went on to describe how both publics are losing interest in cooperating on security, counter-terrorism and border security. But a closer look at these and other polling numbers show that it’s not so much that Canadians and Americans are losing interest in cooperating. Rather, it appears that publics in both countries are feeling less threatened by security risks and are therefore less likely to support actions that focus on security and terrorism.
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. 

Figure 1: US-Canada cooperation on anti-terrorism measures

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.)
Figure 2: Threat of terrorism
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. 
Perhaps most importantly, the overall feelings toward each other quite positive. The Chicago Council found that for Americans, Canada is the favorite country (79%) among every country surveyed. Canadians have generally been less effusive toward the US. Pew readings of Canadian views toward the US in 2013 were 64%, down slightly from 68% in 2009, but more favorable than levels recorded in 2007 (55%) and 2005 (59%). Furthermore, in 2013, eight in ten Canadians had confidence in President Obama (81%), down slightly from 88% in 2009 but well above 28% in 2007 and 40% in 2005 of Canadians who had confidence in President Bush.  
Rather than adrift, it appears both publics are redefining the complicated world in which we live and are seeking new and more effective foreign policy tools to address the challenges we face. That doesn’t seem adrift. It seems quite sensible. 


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.


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