A bed for a recovering alcoholic at the inpatient treatment center I work at is comprised of five layers: mattress pad; fitted sheet; flat sheet; blanket; bedspread. Not a single crease can remain on the bedspread once it’s been placed. Hospital corners must adorn the foot of the bed by lifting the mattress itself, gripping a portion of the overhanging sheets about a foot from the end of the bed and draping it onto the top, tucking the remaining material between the lifted portion and the lower edge flat under the mattress, and letting the mattress back down while allowing the raised portion to drift over the side to form the bed’s wings. I’m in the detox hallway preparing one such bed, as even the most far-gone alcoholic who won’t remember their stay here can still appreciate a soft landing pad during the hell of withdrawal, when Sharmini Peries of The Real News Network informs me that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced plans to push back on the Trump Administration’s tariffs against Canada with retaliatory measures of their own. He ends his sentence by reminding the audience that Canadians “will not be pushed around”.
The good prime minister knows worlds more about running a country than I do, and his hospital corners are probably also superior to mine, but this was one of the most laughably empty threats I’ve ever heard in the geopolitical sphere.
The notion that Canada could inflict any meaningful damage to United States commercial interests without suffering massive losses in its own economy ignores a reality the Canadian left warned about decades ago: Canadian export markets depend on U.S. buyers on an overwhelming scale. Almost three-quarters of Canada’s total export markets cited the U.S. as their primary buyer in 2017, and all but three of the top twenty Canadian export industries ship the majority of their product down south. It’s Donald Trump’s sword against Trudeau’s dagger, and while my heart may be in Ottawa for that fight, my money’s staying in Washington D.C. The Canadian left always understood the liability this schematic could create if the U.S. ever chose to leverage this enormous imbalance over the Canadian economy. They called for Canadian industries to diversify their markets and disarm this ticking time bomb. Previous Canadian prime ministers did not heed the warning, and now Trudeau is stuck in the difficult position of lacking the leverage to push back on the coercive tariffs Trump decided to slap on when he cut himself shaving that morning.
History buffs may recognize this relationship. It echoes the vassal states of the bygone colonial era when colonies relied on their mother countries to build and maintain their fundamental economic infrastructure. For all practical purposes, Canada is a 21st century neo-vassal state of its titanic neighbor. It’s been an unspoken reality since the end of the Second World War. But Canada isn’t the only country waking up to this reality; the nations of Europe find themselves in similar identity crises following the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal) and the subsequent sanctions that threaten to close off U.S. markets to any international company that continues to do business in Iran.
The European Union runs a slight trade surplus with the U.S. which increases its potential leverage over that of Canada, but it now faces a crucial decision in its future global trade prospects: capitulate to an arbitrary decision made by the U.S. president, or risk losing access to vital U.S. markets. Similar objections rose across the E.U. when the U.S. Congress passed sanctions on Russia for alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election. E.U. members felt the sanctions would harm their capacities to engage in commerce with Russia, a core trading partner of several E.U. member nations.
The post-Second World War global economic structure has created a string of scenarios in which a single country’s decisions force its allies to comply or else risk potentially catastrophic economic blowback while the country making the decisions faces none of the consequences. German historian Philipp Ther documented the spread of U.S. economic dominance in Europe in his book Europe Since 1989: A History. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet economic models throughout eastern Europe, neoliberal economic philosophy seeped into the consciousness of the former communist states throughout the 1990s. Poland was the first to fall to such influence due to a hyper-inflated currency and obscene amounts of accumulated debt. The former Yugoslavia followed in short succession. The floodgates of free market fetishism burst open from there to infect not just the former communist states but also the welfare states of western Europe. Take a look at the meteoric rise of right-wing nationalism in the United Kingdom, France, Poland, Hungary, Greece, Italy, and so many other nations and you will find yellow brick roads leading back to the twenty-year wreckage of neoliberal policies radiating into these countries from the cancer that is U.S. global economic dominance.
The fallout also spreads into relations between European states. Greece’s 2013 declaration of bankruptcy prompted a series of austerity measures that cut government programs and raided Greek citizens’ retirement funds. International media spun the crisis as a battle between Greece and the French-German coalition tasked with negotiating a settlement to reconstruct the Greek economy. However, as explained by former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis in his book Adults in the Room: My Battle with the European and American Deep Establishment, this was never an accurate depiction. The insistence on austerity measures came not from France or Germany, or even the European Central Bank, but from the mouth of the International Monetary Fund, an institution serving as a group of economic hitmen addicted to slaughtering whole economies. No country exerts more influence over IMF policy than the U.S., and ordinary Europeans act as lightning rods for the whimsical decisions made by American-backed fat cats in suits. Sure, let’s try austerity measures in Greece; see what happens. Not like our retirement pensions are the ones being gutted. And hey, they’ll just blame Germany and France when the deal goes south. The Greek financial crisis was never a matter of France and Germany versus Greece; it was always a product of international private interests serving U.S. goals while turning European nations against each other. A textbook process of privatizing the gains and socializing the losses.
Vassal status extends beyond the economic sphere into military alliances. Donald Trump’s criticism of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization sparked a bizarre infatuation with the conglomerate among the American left. My hot take: NATO is an outdated relic of U.S. imperialism that needs to be dismantled in the interests of maintaining peace across Europe. Confused? Bear with me.
Think about the official NATO military interventions, all of which occurred after the fall of the Warsaw Pact it was created to oppose. What European interests did the 21st century interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Libya serve? What country in the NATO alliance benefited from the waves of migrants fleeing the carnage in desperate efforts to reach havens in Europe? Tony Blair talked a big game about the importance of destroying the alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and fractured the U.K.’s relationship with continental Europe in the process, all because then-president George W. Bush told him to. The U.S. couldn’t care less about this blowback; there’s a whole ocean to keep migrants and international tensions at bay. This is another central characteristic of vassal states: the use of military resources for the mother country’s interests regardless of the consequences for those on the frontier.
Like most 21st century mechanisms of colonialism, the vassal status of U.S. allies is not as explicit as the colonies of old. It’s also not as clear-cut as American installation of a series of dictators in the Philippines to crush the rising indigenous socialist movements there or the continued exploitation of Puerto Rico, Samoa, Guam, and other islands as “protectorates” with limited sovereignty. The vassal status of U.S. allies in the Western world sounds outrageous, as how can countries on relatively equal standing be locked in such a dynamic? Answer that yourself by asking what realistic strategy Canada can implement to push back on the Trump administration’s tariffs, or why European governments cannot convince their largest private companies to continue operations in Iran in their efforts to salvage the Iran Nuclear Deal, or why a crash of the U.S. dollar set in motion by greedy halfwits that the U.S. government refuses to prosecute mangles the global economy in a way no other currency can dream about doing. While you’re at it, ask yourself what benefits any European nation reaped from any U.S.-led NATO intervention of the past twenty years, or how escalating tensions with Russia over yet unproven election interference increases safety for any E.U. citizen.
The picture that emerges isn’t a pretty one for any European sovereignty enthusiast; it’s painted with blood on a canvas of skin.
As the world barrels towards a new multi-polar horizon with the rise of emerging markets like China and the formation of Russia, China, and Iran as a new and albeit unstable Eastern Bloc, many in the Western world are also reevaluating their desires to stay hitched to a bloated abusive partner in the United States. The Canadian left’s warnings of the dangers of unilateral dependency on U.S. markets have finally reached a mainstream audience in Canadian politics. China’s explorations into alternatives to U.S. dollar dependency and announcements of possible investment into Iranian markets has encouraged E.U. member states such as Germany to consider shifting their own international commerce towards the new Eastern Bloc. Resistance to military budget expansion among NATO states and the bizarre addition of Colombia to the mix has created skepticism of the alliance’s relevance in a post-Cold War world. It’s high time Canada and the countries of Europe break from their status as neo-vassals serving the interests of the American Empire over their own.
Vassal states have no place in the 21st century world stage.