Even though it was President Joe Biden’s first major engagement with a foreign leader, his virtual summit with Justin Trudeau attracted little attention in the U.S. media. CNN was consumed by the Tiger Woods car crash. The network didn’t even bother to cut to Mr. Biden’s statement.
The Washington Post put the story on page 14. It wrote off the bilateral meeting as “a symbolic rebooting of neighbourly relations.”
There’s nothing terribly unusual about this. Much to the chagrin of our prime ministers, greater priorities weigh on the presidents.
A fine illustration came when external-affairs minister Lester Pearson grumpily emerged from a White House meeting with president Dwight Eisenhower. Mr. Pearson had asked him about a pressing Canadian concern. But Ike, the golfing president, didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.
“You’d think his caddy would have mentioned it to him,” Mr. Pearson muttered.
Truth be told, there was not a lot of big news from the Trudeau-Biden video conference. It was fully anticipated that they would restore goodwill to the relationship, which they did, and that they’d vow to work closely together on an array of issues, which they did.
But the pandemic restrictions robbed the meeting of the intrigue we normally see at first gatherings of presidents and PMs: the repartee and bonhomie, the big speeches, the clinking of glasses at state dinners, the back-and-forth with the media.
Canadians will be pleased at the professionalism and maturity Mr. Biden brings, it being such a relief from the confrontational attitudes of Donald Trump. As for the road map of co-operation the two leaders laid out, it sounded nice – but we’ll have to see what happens when realities intrude.
Do Canadians even want a new partnership with the U.S., given its crisis-ridden state? By comparison, Canada is in a position of strength on a number of fronts. Which is the country that is more equitable, more unified, less violent, less hidebound, less racist? Which is the country that has a better functioning democracy, a better health care system, a longer life expectancy, a greater social safety net?
The American relationship is still obviously of tremendous importance. But Canada’s dependence on the U.S. is not as deep as it used to be. Economically, culturally, militarily, Canada is more secure than before.
Remember the talk, post-free-trade, of moving to deeper forms of integration with the U.S., such as a customs union or a perimeter accord or a European Union-type of arrangement? You never hear that any more. Instead, the trend now is toward managed trade and more protectionist measures, which of course mitigate against any new kind of partnership. In that new dynamic, Canada is well positioned. With the modernization of the NAFTA agreement, there is a safety net.
Militarily, the end of the Cold War reduced the importance to Canada of the American defence umbrella. Mr. Biden and Mr. Trudeau talked about strengthening NORAD, the defence warning system, and that is worthwhile – but it’s hardly as important as it used to be.
Culturally, we recall that in the old days, Canada was so paranoid about U.S. domination that the Committee for an Independent Canada was all the rage. Subsequently, there was fear of brain drain, of all our country’s finest minds heading south. Now there is no more hand-wringing about a Canadian identity. Our cultural maturity is well ensconced.
On unity, Canada has already faced up to a decades-long crisis over Quebec independence. Now the unity crisis lives south of the border, where two political solitudes are fiercely colliding.
The trajectory sees more divergence from the U.S. than convergence. In the context of the long-held Canadian need for diversification, for not having all our bread in one basket, it is commendable.
At the same time, it’s a plus to have a government in Washington of a progressive stripe whose policies align with Ottawa’s on many fronts. America’s failings have been occasioned in due part by the advances of the hard right in the Republican Party. Canada’s comparative advantages have been won over time, mainly by progressive governments.
The meeting with Mr. Trudeau was important in rekindling the historic friendship between the two countries. It will hopefully result in benefits such as help on COVID-19 vaccines and the release of Canada’s hostages in China.
But the new realities of the bilateral relationship need to be kept in mind. They do not favour us moving further into the American orbit.
Editor’s note: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this piece incorrectly described Lester Pearson as saying 'You’d think his caddy would have mentioned it to him' in 1960.
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