AS the Oct. 30 Quebec referendum on secession from Canada approaches, an increasingly concerned United States appears eager to abandon its traditionally quietist approach toward such northern rumblings in favor of a more overtly decisive stance.
And rightfully so: With the potential for disruptions of trade under NAFTA, as well as the threat of massive political instability along its longest border, Washington simply can't afford to sit this one out.
The old political wisdom in the US State Department was to cultivate a careful refrain, sometimes referred to as ''the mantra.'' Asked for America's opinion on French Quebec's aspirations for independence, presidents and ambassadors would avoid trouble by saying they ''preferred a united Canada,'' but that the decision ''was one for Canadians to decide.''
Trying to get State Department officials to go any further was about as easy as squeezing a lemon for its last drop of juice.
But suddenly, policy statements that were hitherto shared with Canadian representatives only behind closed doors are being aired publicly. Witness the ever-prudent Warren Christopher's recent foray into the Quebec-Canada melee.
Speaking to the media during a visit by Canada's foreign minister, the secretary of state warned against assuming that trade with the US would remain the same with an independent Quebec.
Common sense or rhetoric?
Common sense suggests that the current NAFTA signatories - the US, Canada, and Mexico - would try to wrest maximum concessions from an independent Quebec desperate to join the club. But the Quebec debate has little to do with common sense; nationalist campaigns rarely do.
This fight to secure a French-speaking sovereign state in the middle of North America has more to do with Gallic emotion and rhetoric in a land fertile with belief in a revisionist history claiming years of victimization by English oppressors.
Those determined to say ''oui'' to secession seem not to notice or not to care that the independent leaders have been hawking arguments often untenable with each other. For example, to improve Quebec's sagging economy, the reigning Parti Quebecois promises to slash its $5 billion deficit and $57 billion debt, and then, in the same breath, promises increased government spending and Soviet-like guarantees of employment. ''Vote yes and it all becomes possible,'' goes the election slogan.
In this context of blind faith and lax political scrutiny, Quebec's premier and Parti Quebecois leader Jacques Parizeau and his separatist ally in Ottawa, Lucien Bouchard of the Bloc Quebecois, encountered little resistance in promising Quebec's easy and instant entry into NAFTA.
Going further, the nationalists even hinted last year that US officials had whispered as much to them. Looking back, nationalists may regret that as an unwise provocation. Leading up to Mr. Christopher's most recent remarks - considered by one Ottawa official ''the strongest message from any foreign government'' against Quebec separation - were signals that the world's most important country was no fan of Quebec independence.
First there was President Clinton with his ''Vive le Canada!'' during an address to Canada's House of Commons last February, understood in Canada as a reference to Charles de Gaulle's infamous ''Vive le Quebec libre'' (''Long live free Quebec'') during a 1967 speech in Montreal.
Then there was the American ambassador in Ottawa, James Blanchard, who has more than once - even during the current referendum campaign - made headline news by saying that Quebec's accession to NAFTA would be no piece of cake.
Former assistant US trade representative Charles Roh, meanwhile, issued a report this month citing antitrade sentiments in Congress as only one of several obstacles standing in the way of automatic Quebec admission into NAFTA. With special interest groups in the US targeting Quebec's agricultural and textile subsidies, current trade benefits favorable to Quebec would face certain renegotiation, the report said.
English-speakers and natives
Though this welcome shift in strategy by the Clinton administration has been motivated largely by economics and Realpolitik, other dynamics also are cause for concern. A remark by Bloc leader Bouchard criticizing Quebec women for giving the province the lowest birth rate among ''white races,'' confirmed the fears of many that, for the nationalists, a true Quebecker is white, French-speaking, and preferably ''de souche'' - of ''old stock.''
The minority English-speaking population, which for years has lived with language-police enforcing laws banning English on signs, may see further erosion in its status. Many English-speakers openly doubt their future in a Quebec without guarantees provided by the federal government in Ottawa.
Natives, neither white nor French, are asserting their determination to remain part of Canada. Given that they sit on northern Quebec land, which is also home to the province's vast natural resources, a major confrontation seems inevitable.
In short, behind the pleasant face of nationalism portrayed in the campaign, there is the threat of its darker excesses. As the US and other nations consider their Quebec policy, trade should not be the only measure, nor the only cause for concern.