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Two nations have much to cherish, many opportunities to share more

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When we raise our glasses to celebrate the Dominion of Canada on July 1st and the United States of America on July 4th, there is much to celebrate.

First, by this time next year Canadian troops and most of U.S. troops will be home from the Afghan war.

The Allied effort in the long war of liberation and counter-insurgency in Afghanistan has cost us much blood and treasure. While not the victory we envisaged, al-Qaeda has been displaced, justice meted out to Osama bin Laden and most of his gang and security for Afghanistan is passing to Afghan forces, after training by Canadian and U.S. forces.

Perhaps the most important lesson learned in this exercise is that while democratic institutions can be planted, they do not easily take root. With the best of intentions on gender equality and respect for minorities, cultures and attitudes are not changed overnight.

Inculcating the habits of law and order including representative government, a free press, independent judiciary and an honest civil service is measured not in months or years but decades if not generations.

We have learned, the hard way, that we cannot fix every situation notwithstanding the chorus cry that intervention will solve the problem, that is sung by those on the right and left. Strong in arms we must be but as soldier-statesman Colin Powell observed: “You break it, you own it.”

We do not bear the primary responsibility for tragic situations not of our making, especially where our interests are not directly at stake. Too quickly the “liberator” is transformed into the occupier and, in Islamic nations, labeled a latter-day “crusader.”

Those who pontificate about our “responsibility to protect” should visit Walter Reed or any of our hospitals of rehabilitation and see with their own eyes the human cost of sending young men and women into harm’s way. In his farewell address to the nation, George Washington cautioned: “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is, in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible.”

Our principal responsibility is to our own people and security at home. The alliance forged by Franklin Roosevelt and MacKenzie King at Kingston, Ogdensburg and Hyde Park between 1938 and 1941 remains evergreen and the defense umbrella over our skies now extends to our seas.

The tragedy of the Boston Marathon and the recent arrests, involving close collaboration with U.S. authorities, in Montreal and Toronto of those who wanted to bomb Via Rail, is a reminder that, together, we must remain vigilant on the home front. But this does not mean building walls around a Fortress North America.

Our greatest resource is our people. Our openness to new people and the ideas and skills that they bring to our countries is our continuing strength. The Lady holding Liberty’s torch in New York harbor is symbol of a bond that unites both our nations. Long may it shine.

Second, after enduring the longest recession since the Great Depression, our economies are recovering.

We still need more jobs — especially for those graduating from colleges and universities. Reshoring of manufacturing will help. So will continued investment in “smart” infrastructure.

The U.S. Society of Engineers estimates that we need to make a $3.6 trillion reinvestment in the renovation and rebuilding of our roads and bridges, ports and air terminals.

These projects will not just generate jobs but better position our economies to handle the growing supply-chain dynamics that constitute the foundation for future North American (including Mexico) competitive advantage.

Third, we stand on the cusp of a manufacturing renaissance made possible by newfound energy resources.

Thanks to research and technological innovation, we are able to develop our energy resources, notably in the oil sands and through the fracking of natural gas. In combination, they guarantee North American energy interdependence.

There are those who argue that we should leave these resources untouched. To not use what nature has given us would defy our frontier can-do spirit and deny our children the bounties that we have enjoyed. Thanks to innovation and research we know how to preserve the balance between exploitation and conservation.

Stewardship does not mean turning the top half of North America into “one giant national park” as Prime Minister Harper put it.

But it should mean exercising leadership in environmental protection and using the power of regulation to enforce good behavior. This is the formula behind the International Joint Commission. For over a century it has overseen our shared waterways and continues to be a model for joint stewardship.

In August 1938, Franklin Roosevelt, the U.S. president who best understood the strategic importance of Canada, received an honorary degree at Queen’s University. Later in the day, Roosevelt would meet with MacKenzie King, a prime minister who recognized that friendship with the U.S. did not mean subservience.

Together they dedicated the Thousand Islands Bridge to expedite the flow of people and commerce across our border and this year it celebrates its 75th anniversary.

In his remarks at Queen’s, Roosevelt observed that “We as neighbors are good friends because we maintain our rights with frankness, because we refuse to accept the twists of secret diplomacy, because we settle our disputes by consultation and because we discuss our common problems in the spirit of the common good.”

This is the spirit in which we should celebrate our respective national days.

And always, we should remember to cultivate the three qualities that Roosevelt described in his convocation remarks’ as essential to keep our foothold in life’s shifting sands: humility, humanity and humour.

A former diplomat, Colin Robertson is vice president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and a senior adviser to McKenna, Long and Aldrdige, LLP.

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