Voice

Introducing Vice President Greta Garbo...or was that Howard Hughes...

Joe Biden wants to be alone. And after this morning's performance on the Today Show, it is quite likely that the Obama administration will be fulfilling that wish for him very soon. Where was that undisclosed location anyway?

Biden, when asked about how to mitigate the risks associated with the swine flu threat, said that people should avoid being in enclosed spaces with others. He specifically cited airplanes, subways, and classrooms. Which would mean, er, shutting down the entire economy. Actually, all social interaction. In fact, essentially what the Vice President was doing was sending all of us to our rooms.

Now admittedly, Mexico is shutting down much of its economy to contain the disease. But clearly, with the limited number of cases of the flu in the United States and its limited impact, he seemed to be over-reacting. Actually, he seemed to be exercising his unique gift for sticking his foot in his mouth. (Which is especially inadvisable in times like these. You just don't know where that foot has been.) But even for Biden, who truly has become the crazy old uncle in this administration, saying goofy things and considered to be having a good day when he doesn't actually set the White House on fire by leaving his oatmeal on the stove for too long, has really outdone himself today though directly pouring gasoline onto the flames of panic and over-reaction to the swine flu outbreak.

It is one thing for the WHO to ramp up warning levels to ensure the world can contain potential threats. It's another thing to suggest that people stay off airplanes (do it long enough and Steve Rattner will have another industry to rebuild), out of public transportation (guaranteed to produce more road-rage related traffic deaths in congested traffic than the swine flu will generate worldwide), and out of school (take that competitiveness). 

If the Vice President has become a Howard Hughes like germ-a-phobe, then perhaps he might want to consider going all the way and trying out reclusiveness for a while. We'll miss the light comedy but I'm not sure how many more gaffes of this nature an already weak economy can take.   Paging Dr. Gupta: If only Sanjay had been our surgeon general now, we would really be benefitting from his communications skills and the ability to have the administration turn to more qualified spokespeople than kooky old Uncle Joe.

David Rothkopf

The axis of stability

At my summer camp in Maine -- which was really the equivalent of that South Pacific manhood ritual where they attach vines to a teenaged boy's testicles and throw him off a tree -- on the very first day they would gather all the new campers around and teach them the camp song. It was entitled "Oh, Camp We Love" and, as the budding concentration camp guards they called counselors used to point out, "it's sung to the same tune as the Canadian national anthem, "O Canada.'" Naturally, this generated confusion and blank stares from all the boys present because the comment was roughly as helpful as suggesting the camp talent show utilize the same narrative technique as The Tale of Genji. I mean, for goodness sake, we were from New Jersey. We knew Canada was up there somewhere between Boston and the North Pole and that they played hockey there, but beyond that, details were scarce.

Since then, throughout my life, I have always found that when giving a talk, a reference to Canada is reliably good for a laugh. Making fun of Canada seldom offends any American and Canadians tend to be too polite to object. And it it's funny because Canada is so darned unthreatening, bland enough to make your average bowl of tapioca seem muy caliente. (The only thing more boring than Canada? Coldplay. "Viva la vida?!" Seriously. Viva la sominex.) Of course, I'm not the only one who has gone after Canada. Take for example the greatest song ever written about international relations, "Blame Canada." (Which song clearly kicks the ass of anything Coldplay has ever written. Of course, so too does anything ever done by that immortal Canadian-Egyptian-Armenian, Raffi.)

It's all a bit unfair actually. A lot unfair. And I was thinking this as I was watching President Obama's press conference with Prime Minister Harper. Harper's year has been as politically star-crossed as Obama's has been seemingly guided by a lucky star. But together yesterday, these two were the picture of what good allies should be. They were polite, respectful, at times deferential, honest about areas of concern and seemingly sincere in their desire to work through potential trouble spots whether they be sclerotic border crossings or the potential for turbulence on trade. Both were gracious, articulate, and statesmanlike.

The U.S.-Canada Clean Energy Dialogue they announced was an excellent step to strengthen an already rock-solid relationship by collaborating on an issue where common interests abound.

During the news conference held by Harper and Obama, each of the men warmly characterized the state of the relationship between the two countries. Framing his remarks in the context of Obama's ascendancy to office, Harper said:

His election to the presidency launches a new chapter in the rich history of Canada-U.S. relations. It is a relationship between allies, partners, neighbors, and the closest of friends; a relationship built on our shared values -- freedom, democracy, and equality of opportunity epitomized by the President himself."

Obama, speaking next said:

I came to Canada on my first trip as President to underscore the closeness and importance of the relationship between our two nations, and to reaffirm the commitment of the United States to work with friends and partners to meet the common challenges of our time. As neighbors, we are so closely linked that sometimes we may have a tendency to take our relationship for granted, but the very success of our friendship throughout history demands that we renew and deepen our cooperation here in the 21st century.

"We're joined together," he continued, "by the world's largest trading relationship and countless daily interactions that keep our borders open and secure. We share core democratic values and a commitment to work on behalf of peace, prosperity, and human rights around the world."

Usually such words exchanged between political leaders are empty rhetoric. But, in the case of the U.S. and Canada, even with the ups and downs the relationship has been through, they ring true.

It underscored a reality that doesn't earn magazine covers in the way problems such as those highlighted in FP's Axis of Upheaval do. It is natural to focus on problems and threats. But throughout human history and especially in the current era, instability and failed states are really "dog bites man." 

What is rare, exceptional really, are the cases of the special relationships, the alliances that transcend treaties and become true and enduring partnerships. In many of the most important elements of life and foreign policy, boring is good. Boring is the foundation that allows us to stand the upheaval. Boring is constant in an inconstant world and as such is indispensable and invaluable. (The very best marriages for similar reasons, are sometimes perceived as boring. My wife for example, likes both Canada and Coldplay very much. Come to think of it, I'd probably better move on to the next thought...)

I would go further, it may well be that among the relationships of neighboring states, particularly among comparatively powerful neighbors, the U.S.-Canada relationship may be unique in history.  Oh sure, once, long ago, we had that little "Fifty-four Forty or Fight" issue, but that was with the British and frankly with all that manifest destiny testosterone pulsing through our then adolescent veins we were bound to get into trouble with anyone we encountered.

To put it into context, go through history in your mind. Pick two neighbors anywhere. Now find a pair that have gotten along better, avoided war (save for the conflicts depicted in "Canadian Bacon" and that in the aforementioned classic "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.")

Go further, in the vein of my post last week on America's worst alliances, make a list of America's best alliances. Canada tops the list so easily that it is hard to find anyone else that is close. There's the United Kingdom, of course, but we did get off to a bit of a rocky start with them and there was that pesky War of 1812 and they were, despite being officially neutral, not entirely constructive during the Civil War.

And then the next best ally? Ah, while the choices are few they are so tempting. Readership-baiting is so gratifying. (Really, you guys are so easy to toy with. It's like having a dog that always goes after the stick.) I guess the next best ally we have had is Israel. (There, I've said it. Come on all you "realists" time to line up and give it your best shot. I'll even provide your first line for you: "Some of my best friends are Jews, but...") Or, offering the kind of paradox that makes such analyses so much fun (and explains everything about our relationship with the French) perhaps number three is actually France. Ah, this really is too enjoyable.

I think I will stop writing and just warmly contemplate your reactions out there in Wonkavia, land of the Foreign Policy geeks. (And congratulate myself for having gotten through an entire piece about Canada without a single joke about Celine Dion.)

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