Assuming Rational Action of Nation-States: Poutine versus Rice

Canada, specifically, Ottawa and Montreal, and grey in March. There are pockets of snow blanketing the ground… or in some cases… piled to car tops. “Half of the winter melt off” you are informed if asking how much snow falls. Considering both of these cities (like 90% of the Canadian population) lie within 120 miles of the US border, it is easy to understand what the word “winter” actually means. Late March and Canada is still cold and snowy… and poutine (fries, brown gravy, and cheese) is wonderfully delicious.

I just returned from a week in Canada as an official guest of the Canadian government to be briefed on and inspect Canadian border security operations. Seems the Canadian government is intent on informing the US government, congressional staffers specifically, on how much hard work they are doing and how they are making progress in not only securing their external borders, but how they are cooperating with the US to secure the border with us. Enhance the perimeter borders and thus one secures the internal US-Canada border.

Some quick facts:

– Canada and the US share the world’s largest friendly border in the world.

– According to Canadian sources, there are no other countries with closer ties.

– There is a deep and integrated security and defense relationship between US and Canada.

– Canada is the US’ largest supplier of “foreign” oil, nuclear fuel, electricity, and natural gas… we want to talk about Middle Eastern oil… but our friendly neighbors to the North are our real energy crack dealers.

– Canada and US have an annual $1 trillion trade and investment relationship.

– Canada is America’s largest customer.

– 8 million US jobs rely on trade and investment with Canada.

– Canadian businesses employ approximately a half million Americans.

– Canada and US share a geographic environment… what one does to the environment affects the other.

Obviously, Canada has made, what the US would consider, rational decisions in its relationship with the US. It has increased its security operations to assuage the post-9/11 fears of America. It has taken an active role in securing its borders to enhance its security with America and in turn, increase the security of the US. Canada is a partner of the US and interacts with America in a manner than seems very rational.

Many would say Canadians and Canada are not really different from America… thus it only makes sense that they act in a manner that is easily understood by Americans and American policymakers. Do not be fooled by our friendly neighbors to the North. I have traveled three times to Canada. Once to Toronto in 2005, Vancouver and British Columbia in 2007, and this recent trip to Ottawa and Montreal. Canada is a foreign country with its own national interests.

Toronto, Canada’s largest city by population, seems very sterile. It  has pockets of character, but a quick visit reveals very little of what one would assume as naturally Canadian… Toronto feels like a very clean American city. Vancouver, although a very clean version of Seattle, may seem unremarkable on the surface… it is actually quite unique with its cultural onion of European, Asian, and North American layers and influences. Imagine a person from Seattle that showers more often and you have a good idea of what your average Vancouver resident seems like. British Columbia overall though is very large and grandiose. It is spectacular and the BC residents all seem like L.L. Bean models with their natural good looks and outdoorsy life… I’m all about generalizations.

Whereas Toronto and Vancouver imply a North American culture, Ottawa feels very European with its 1990s Frankfurt, Germany, architecture and its cathedral (religious) roots toward governance. The Canadian Parliament is nothing more than a large cathedral and definitely shows the modern (and secular) European propensity to display the obvious arc of liberal democracy from its roots in the Church to royal to parliament to people. The Prime Minister’s party is still the main political institution that drives and proposes legislation where the elected Members of Parliament seem more of a rubber stamp type quality.

Montreal… and a lot of the Quebec province… is uber European with its primary language of French and architecture that resembles a large modern European city… the largest American influence seems to be Starbucks or four-wheel drive trucks. If one were to wake up in Montreal without previous memory of getting there… one would assume they were in a French city with all the black wearing Eurotrash men and overabundance of high fashion stores. Canada is not America, Canada is a foreign country, and Canada conducts a strategic process in determining how it interacts with America. Canada has determined that its national interests are best met by cooperating with the US. A lot of us assume that Canadians want to be Americans… that assumption is incorrect. Canadians want what is best for Canada.

Speaking of assumptions, one has to wonder what Kim Jong Un is thinking. The youngest son of the former North Korean leader Kim Jong Ill, cherub-faced, and supposedly the most Western… European boarding school will do that to you… Kim Jong Un was seen as a safe selection by US analysts… until one wondered how the North Korean military and political establishment (one and the same?) would handle the chubby dictator. Crazy… out of control… war mongering… irrational… are all terms used to describe the latest announcement to come out of Pyongyang. Cancelling the Korean War armistice, threatening both South Korea and America with nuclear strikes. Irrational is the word that easily slips off the tongues of Western observers.

Yet, assuming an irrational action from the outside is very simple. How do Western analysts actually know that Kim Jong Un and the North Korean government aren’t acting in what it deems rational? Are these latest actions actual steps toward war with South Korea and America or are these actions attempts by Kim Jong Un and his handlers attempting to consolidate power or build street cred with the North Korean population? What one sees as irrational from the outside may be completely rational from the North Korean strategic prism.

Analysts, observers, and the average America would also assume that there is some sort of leash that the Chinese keep North Korea on. It is irrefutable that China is North Korea’s patron, but it is not firmly established that North Korea does the exact bidding of the Chinese. One has to examine Chinese actions and interests to completely understand the North Korean dilemma. China and the US may actually have parallel interests when it comes to the Korean peninsula.

China doesn’t want a democratically, and unified, Korean country on its southern border. China doesn’t want a North Korea that is so unstable that its southern border is overflowing with Korean refugees. Yet, China definitely wants a North Korea that mires US forces and resources. China definitely wants to use North Korea as a bargaining chip when it engages the US. China is walking a tight rope with North Korea and one has to wonder how much discussion has involved China when North Korea goes about rattling its saber.

The US can not afford a unified Korea… and I literally mean “afford.” The price tag of a unified Korean peninsula is astronomical. The reunification of Germany would be drops in the bucket compared to what the price tag would be for Korea… unless one assumes that the (former) North Koreans would be willing to accept a slower transition in both political and economic terms. One also has to wonder if by “allowing” North Korea to exist in its present state, the US is allowing China to maintain a buffer and face in the geopolitics of Asia.

I have no idea why Kim Jong Un and North Korea is acting the way it is. I have no crystal ball, I am not privy to secret information… and I am far less informed than my peers who spend their days researching Korean military/political affairs… however, I do know that we spend a great deal of time assuming things of other nations and national leaders. One can easily discard Canada as a separate country just as quickly as one can discard the latest pronouncements from North Korea. Maybe there isn’t a need to assume recent North Korean action as rational or irrational… but there is a need to assume that there are reasons for these actions and there needs to be careful strategic deliberations in planning US response. I do, however, have an idea on how much poutine one must eat to reach the point of gravy, fries, and cheese saturation… and that is four days.