Canada, the War of 1812, and… Pakistan? On National Narratives

Yesterday, inspired by the Sailabration of the War of 1812, I did a bit of alternative history, wondering what would have happened to the United States if it had won the War of 1812 and conquered Canada.  I may have understated the
case.  One of the great fears of the
founding fathers was that the United States would collapse into a bunch of
squabbling states.  Absorbing Canada
might have made this outcome far more likely.
But as a follow-up I want to reverse the
question, what if Canada had lost the War of 1812?
Successfully resisting the American invasion
of 1812 (with some rather striking victories) is central to Canada’s national
identity.  It has allowed Canada to
tolerate and prosper sharing a border with an incredibly wealthy, powerful, and
frankly overbearing superpower.  Canadian
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau put it best:

Living next to you
is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant: No matter how friendly and
even-tempered the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.

imagine if the United States had decisively defeated Canada and perhaps taken
some strategic Canadian territory (say Halifax).

Canada could easily have become paranoid and
obsessed with its southern neighbor. 
Imagine a Canada devoted to a Pyrrhic arms race with the United States.  It is easy to imagine this paranoid and
disadvantaged state seeking asymmetric means against its more powerful
neighbor.  This hypothetical vicious
Canada might reach out to hostile Native Americans, secessionist southerners,
and attempted to build alliances with Mexico and European powers with a
presence on the American periphery. 
Meanwhile, Canada itself would be impoverished.  The social programs Canadians cite with pride
would not be possible with enormous defense outlays.  Perhaps there would be Canadian politicians
who recognized the folly of this policy, but large bureaucracies have a knack
for justifying their existence.  The
military would become a state within a state, untouchable by other authorities.
In short, Pakistan.
I bring this up to illustrate the importance
of national honor and the national narrative in shaping national policies.  Realists of various stripes may argue that it
is all about geopolitics and pursuit of power on the international stage – and
certainly those things are important.
But so is a nation’s sense of itself.  In the case of Pakistan, a country with which
I am obsessed, this has been crucial. 
Many Pakistanis recognize the conflict with India is futile and drainingthe nation’s wealth so that it falls behind India on a per capita basis (on top
of the massive difference in size.)  But
the overfed military dominates the nations politics and devours its
resources.  The military has fostered an
Islamist narrative of Pakistan’s history to cover both the country’s
development failures and its enormous ethnic and sectarian splits – while insisting
India (and now the US) is behind every mishap.
If Pakistan felt it had defeated India,
perhaps it would be in a stronger position to make peace and perhaps redefine
its conflict with India in terms of culture and economics.
The validity of Pakistani grievances may have
some merit, but the means with which they have sought to rectify them do
not.  But their national narrative is
that the world is against them and thus any means needed to survive can be justified.

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