I was hoping to score a laugh. The laughs came and also loud applause when I recently suggested that the western parts of Canada and the United States form their own country. That way, I said, Ottawa and Washington could do their thing and we could do ours.

My audience was the Western Canadian Wheat Growers and Barley Growers Associations; they had invited me to come up from Iowa and speak in Calgary at their annual conference.

They knew I was joking. The Canadians are a patriotic people. They also scoff at the typical American’s inability to play hockey or understand curling.

Yet their reaction to my wisecrack drove home an important point: In many ways, we are already a common people. We inhabit the same landmass. Most of us speak the same language and put some faith in democratic institutions. Our western provinces and states share similar economic and political concerns.

If our two nations didn’t fundamentally trust each other, we wouldn’t share the longest unmilitarized border in the world.

There are vital differences, to be sure. Many of them involve trade, even in the age of NAFTA. The strongest marriages have their arguments, and the United States and Canada are probably destined to bicker over lumber, wheat, cattle, hogs, and so on.

In Calgary, I was surprised to learn how many Canadians were closely following the debate in Washington over Trade Promotion Authority, which enhances our president’s ability to negotiate trade agreements and is essential if the World Trade Organization’s Doha round is to succeed.

It brought to mind a comment by the late Canadian historian John Bartlet Brebner: “Americans are benevolently ignorant about Canada, while Canadians are malevolently well-informed about the United States.”

Most Americans probably couldn’t name the Canadian prime minister or pick him out of a lineup. Sad.

This knowledge gap is inevitable, given the relative size of our countries. Although Canada is geographically larger than the United States–only Russia is physically bigger–almost ten times as many people live below the 49th parallel as above it. There are more Californians than Canadians.

That’s one reason why Canadians are so interested in the WTO: It’s the quickest and surest way for them to gain access to markets in other countries.

Trade ministers line up to negotiate bilateral and regional deals with the United States because we own the world’s biggest and most robust consuming economy. Canada, however, is far down on their list of priorities. The result is that Canada places a heavy emphasis on multilateral talks that benefit everyone.

This dynamic presents an interesting opportunity for Members of Congress (MOC’s). Many of them have criticized President Bush’s foreign policy on the grounds that it’s too unilateral and doesn’t pay enough attention to the concerns of our allies. A few may even owe their Election Day victories to this notion.

If they believe their own rhetoric, they should now take a hard look at TPA, which is an essential tool of multilateralism. It’s set to expire this summer. Without TPA, the United States simply won’t participate in multilateral (WTO) trade deals. The Doha round will collapse.

Although the President has called for the renewal of TPA in recent weeks, too many MOC’s seem firmly against. Partisanship explains some of this, and protectionism the rest of it.

If Congress doesn’t breathe new life into TPA, however, it will essentially be in the position of issuing a unilateral veto against global trade talks. The White House would be wise to ask: Who is the unilateralist bully now?

One possibility for these “aginners” is to extend TPA by six months or a year, in a bid to save the Doha round from ruin. That may be well worth doing, especially if the alternative is a WTO failure. Yet the most satisfying solution to the problem is for TPA to become permanent.

The Canadians are watching us. More Americans should pay attention, too. After all, it’s our country, not theirs.

Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmers, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org