Discovering Our True North

Q&A with Stephen Kelly, Associate director of Duke's Center for Canadian Studies
April 1, 2012

Before coming to Duke in 2008, Stephen Kelly spent twenty-eight years in the U.S. Foreign Service, holding diplomatic posts on four continents. Nearly a decade of that time was spent in Canada, where he worked on issues involving energy, trade, and border management. Now a visiting professor of the practice of public policy, Kelly serves as associate director of Duke’s Center for Canadian Studies. We talked to him about our northerly neighbor—and how Duke came to have a special relationship with it.


So,’s America Jr., right?

Americans know very little about Canada, and most of what we know is wrong. We tend to think, they’re just like us, they all like us, and they’re all white. The truth is Canada is very mul- ticultural—about 50 percent of Toronto is foreign-born, and 22 percent of the Canadian population is French-speaking Quebecker. We think it’s a compliment to say that they’re like us, but we’re generally ignorant, and we take Canada for granted. Canada is the largest for- eign trading partner for thirty-six states, including North Carolina.

But we do have a lot in common, don’t we?

In class, we talk about what it means to feel “North American.” You don’t realize it, but when you meet a Canadian or a Mexican in Shanghai or New Delhi, you realize how much closer you feel to them than everyone else around you. We share a lot; we’re all big countries. Getting in your car and driving for five hours to get somewhere is not a big deal to a North American, whereas in Europe, you’d be crossing five countries. North Americans also don’t worry about resources, especially water. And we also share history—we’ve all fought wars against France, England, and Spain, and also against each other. We’ve been in- terrelating for a long time, but we don’t expressly acknowledge this.

How do Canada and Mexico figure in our approach to foreign policy?

We get ourselves into far-flung corners, but our interests and efforts are far better invested here. Of the oil we import, most of it, by far, comes from Canada and Mexico. When we buy oil from our neighbors, the money comes back in trade. If we invested a tenth of the money from the war in Iraq in Mexico, that money would all come back to us in trade. If I ever wrote a book on the subject, it would be called Missed Opportunities. Canada means more than $400 billion a year in trade for us, so a little sustained effort can go a long way.

How did you get interested in Canadian and North American affairs?

I wandered into it. I joined the State Department in 1982 and went to Mali. Then I went to Brussels, then Indonesia, and then Quebec City in 1995. It was a great time to go to Canada because the Quebeckers were voting on separation from Canada, and there would have been a tremendous impact on the U.S. if Canada broke up. I got to know the separatist movement quite well, and I got bit by the Canada bug.

After Quebec, I went to Holland, but went back to Ottawa for four years, and I was there during 9/11. Canada was a tremendous help—some 200 planes had taken off overseas and had already flown too far to turn around. Canada took them in. These tiny places with tiny airports, like Gander, Newfoundland, a town of maybe 10,000, took in something like 6,000 extra visitors that day. People took them into their homes and turned schools into shelters. That story convinced me that when [we neglected] Canada, we were cutting our nose off to spite our face.

What’s your classroom like?

I’m a practitioner, not an academic. We write State Department-style memos in class and learn what to leave in and, more important, what to leave out. You have to write exactly what you want the department to do. We also practice giving succinct oral briefs, which is a skill in which you don’t get much practice. Many of my students want to join the Foreign Service, and I’ve helped two students get summer internships so far—one at the Office of Canadian Affairs in D.C., and one at the U.S. embassy in the Vatican.

How did it get so that we know so little about our neighbors?

From 1994 to 2000, trade and foreign reciprocal investment increased enormously. But 9/11 really set that back. Vicente Fox Quesada, the then-president of Mexico, had visited President Bush in D.C. on September 6, 2001. They knew each other quite well. Bush’s first inter- national trip was to Mexico, the second was to Quebec City. But then we became obsessed about security...rightfully so, but as a consequence, we’ve “thickened the border.”

A united North America: good thing or bad thing?

My bias is that more cooperation is better. Whether EU-style borders are better, I don’t know. But for one, more cooperation would enhance trade—it’s good for us and them. We haven’t done a good job of showing why NAFTA is good. But if President Obama wants to in- crease exports by 100 percent in the next five years, what better place is there to start than with our largest trading partners? For another reason, we’d have better control of energy. The northeast blackout of 2003 started in Ohio but it spread all the way through eight states and Ontario. Who knew we were on the same electrical system?

Energy and trade, these are no-brainers. My hobbyhorse is continental defense. Can we counter drug trafficking, cyber-attacks, and terrorists without partnerships from our neighbors? I think no. On the other hand, labor would be harder. Mexico is just so much poorer than the U.S. and Canada that the disparity is hard to overcome. We’re not ready, certainly not in the near future, for an open labor market or to allow free movement.

Aside from cultural similarities, how have we maintained peaceful borders with both countries?

Well, part of that has to do with water. Forty percent of our border with Canada is water. Ever since Teddy Roosevelt’s Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, trans- border water resources have been managed peacefully. And we have a similar situation with Mexico with the International Boundary and Water Commission [which originated in 1889 and was re- named in 1944]. We could never get something like that to pass today; it’s the product of a very progressive era. These treaties are mechanisms to measure and track water disputes and accountability. And water is the next big issue, before famine, and after oil is over. We could certainly do worse for neighbors. Imagine if our neighbor was Venezuela. That 5,525-mile border would be a problem.

How did Duke’s Canadian studies department get started, and how has it survived?

Canadian studies started in 1974; we had a British Commonwealth program before that. Many leaders in the field of Canadian studies got their Ph.D.s here. But the interest level dropped off for a while—China has come on like gang- busters. Then Duke hired Jane Moss in 2005, and she became director of the center in 2008, and I arrived at the same time. We started getting grants from the Canadian government and planning more programs with a departmental en- dowment from a long time ago. James B. Duke built the first hydro- electric plant facility in Quebec to provide power to his lumber and paper companies, and that eventually became part of Hydro-Québec, the largest hydro- electric power in the world. So there’s a connection—that’s partly where the en- dowment comes from. And we have more Canadian alums at Duke than any other foreign group at the school.

What’s your favorite Canada joke?

What’s the difference between a Canadian and an American? A Canadian is an un-armed American with health insurance.