The chances of Canadians getting their wish and being rid of Donald Trump are brightening by the day. Joe Biden has opened a good lead in the United States’ presidential race. But a victory for the Democrat won’t mean that the king of chaos is totally gone. The person, yes. But the big policy thrust as it affects Canada? No.
In the critical area of trade, Mr. Biden’s platform is proposing a “Buy American” nationalist, protectionist course that closely aligns with what the Trump administration has been doing.
In interviews, several bilateral experts said Mr. Biden, who does not have the temperament of a toddler, would restore civility and stability to Canada-U.S. relations. But beyond that, no one should get their hopes up too high, particularly on the trade front.
“There’s substantively no difference,” said Peter Clark, a trade lawyer who has been working as a negotiator since the 1960s. “Biden’s from Pennsylvania. It’s a lunch-bucket state.” There’s no big constituency in the Democratic Party for trade liberalization, he said. There will be a rebirth of the “buy local” mindset.
David MacNaughton, the former Canadian ambassador to Washington, said that anyone who wakes up after a Biden election victory thinking bilateral problems will be solved “should think again.” He said that Democrats tend to see eye to eye with Mr. Trump’s trade czar, Robert Lighthizer. “I don’t see trade policy changing dramatically,” Mr. MacNaughton said.
From the West, where there is concern over Mr. Biden’s aggressive environmentalism, Greg Anderson of the University of Alberta echoed the views of the others. If Mr. Trump is defeated, “There’s no new age in front of us.”
The bottom-line bad news? Canada is reliant on liberalized trade. But the tide is moving in the other direction and the Biden Democrats are following.
Mr. Trump has favoured “Buy America” laws and has increased domestic sourcing. Mr. Biden’s announced plans move the dial further in that direction. Promising a “Made in America” future, he has called for a US$400-billion increase in government purchasing of U.S.-based goods and services. He has a bold plan to reclaim domestic supply chains; trade unions will be strengthened.
The presumptive Democratic nominee owes a lot to party stalwarts on the left, such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. “For too long,” a recent Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force report said, “the global trading system has failed to keep its promises to American workers. Too many corporations have rushed to outsource jobs, and too many countries have broken their promises to be honest and transparent partners.”
That sounds straight out of the Trump playbook. Indeed, the Trump team accused Mr. Biden of plagiarism.
There’s no plagiarism on the Keystone XL pipeline, though. Mr. Trump approved it. Mr. Biden has vowed to rescind the approval.
The experts see little to no likelihood that Mr. Biden will seek to bring back the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that Mr. Trump jettisoned. One area that will help Canada competitively is Mr. Biden’s vow to increase the corporate tax rate to 28 per cent, up from the 21 per cent that Mr. Trump had reduced it to.
Mr. Biden supported the North American free-trade agreement in the mid-1990s, but showed less enthusiasm for it after becoming Barack Obama’s vice-president in 2008. While this protectionist thrust is unwelcome in Canada, it’s less of a priority for Canadians than the defeat of Mr. Trump. The restoration of reason, stability and sensibility to American leadership would more than compensate.
As noted by the experts, there is little likelihood that a Biden administration would go to the extreme of using a national-security rationale to impose crippling tariffs on Canada, as the short-fused Trump administration did in the cases of steel and aluminum.
From the American side, trade specialist Kathryn Bryk Friedman of the University of Buffalo said there are some reasons for optimism. Mr. Biden’s policies align with Justin Trudeau’s Liberals on climate change and in other progressive domains. Unlike Mr. Trump, she said, he has a deep respect for Canada and his approach would be undergirded by a knowledge of what a great ally Canada has been.
That’s important, Mr. MacNaughton said, and it’s also important that Canada has in place the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement that Democrats in Congress approved after getting changes made.
But it does not ensure stability, he said. The “America First” mentality has won over the Democrats. “We need to change it to ‘North America First,‘” Mr. MacNaughton said.
The trend toward deglobalization has been intensified by the coronavirus pandemic. It’s a different world, a more beggar-thy-neighbour world than the one in which free trade, as promoted by the Brian Mulroney government, acted as the elite economic consensus for so long.
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