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The freshly re-elected Liberals will need to plot a new strategy for a bilateral reboot of our relationship with the United States.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The Honourable Kevin Lynch is a former clerk of the Privy Council and a former vice-chair of BMO Financial Group. Paul Deegan is the CEO of Deegan Public Strategies and a former White House economic aide.

Winston Churchill once observed that Americans could always be counted upon to do the right thing – after they had exhausted all the alternatives. These days, however, Churchill’s aphorism seems only half right. Donald Trump’s America First nationalism and isolationist approach to global affairs has seemingly survived his presidency. Even with Democrat Joe Biden in the White House, the unique bonds that Canadians share with Americans – of geography, history and economics – now appear to be more of a memory than an asset as the United States sets out on a new domestic and foreign policy course for the changing world order.

There has been no consultation on the U.S.’s withdrawal and evacuation efforts from Afghanistan, and no relief from Buy America policies. In fact, Washington’s stimulus bills have even seen a doubling-down of that approach. There has been no support on the critical Line 3 pipeline dispute with Michigan, no opening of our shared border despite higher vaccination rates in Canada, no softening of U.S. demands around softwood lumber, and no interest in secure Canadian energy exports. Multilaterally, the new American mantra is at least aligned with Canadian interests, and that is welcome given the range of significant and interconnected challenges we face. But that does not appear to come with meaningful consultation and collaboration on policy.

It is clear, then, that the freshly re-elected Liberals will need to plot a new strategy for a bilateral reboot of our relationship with the United States. But any effort is made more complex with dysfunctional and polarized politics south of the border. With U.S. midterm elections now only a year away and protectionist instincts being shared among both progressive Democrats and Trumpian Republicans, the road ahead will be bumpy.

In this reality, a successful reboot will take focus, ideas and allies. Fortunately, there are five areas where there are opportunities to enhance co-operation, achieve better alignment that makes a positive difference for both counties, and find allies – something that is challenging, but necessary.

One is climate change. The devil of cross-border co-operation is often in the details, and that certainly holds true in this case. The specifics of the American approach are unlikely to include a carbon tax, relying instead on a mixture of regulations, targeted green energy investments and a carbon border adjustment tariff mechanism. For Canada, this suggests considerable complexity in achieving climate change policy equivalence and alignment, the possibility of unintended regulatory side-swipe, and the risk of further measures to impede the export of Canadian oil. At the same time, the United States has a self-interest in demonstrating that effective trans-border climate plans are doable, and North America can be a global leader. We have an opportunity to table innovative new areas for Canada-U.S. environmental co-operation, and such pro-activity may also be our best risk-management strategy.

Free trade is also a place where alignment could be found. Trade is neither a pick-and-choose arrangement, nor a zero-sum game, and as a continent – in the face of strategic competition from China and insecure global supply chains – we need to improve our productivity and competitiveness. One way to increase the security of our economies, energy resources, supply chains, data and servers is to fully embrace the intent of the USMCA and make it work well. That means pivoting the U.S. mindset from an America First perspective to one centred around broader North American prosperity.

COVID-19, meanwhile, has been the world’s dominant global health, political and economic issue since early 2020; its carnage and scarring will reverberate for a generation. Canada and the U.S. can play a leadership role in reforming the World Health Organization – strengthening its governance and ensuring scientific independence. Canada could also propose setting up a North American task force on how we can better prepare for the next pandemic since viruses ignore national borders.

With rising geopolitical tensions, and increasingly aggressive foreign policy actions by China and Russia, the free world also needs the United States on security issues – and the U.S., too, needs allies. The fiasco of the pullout from Afghanistan has severely damaged American credibility; the U.S. has put itself and others at greater security risk. Here, Canada can help the Biden administration by advocating for collective security and stronger alliances while demonstrating through actions and budgets our commitment to both NATO and NORAD renewal, as well as peacekeeping. But the U.S. also needs to be inclusive of its best friend and closest ally when it contemplates alliances such as its new pact between Australia and Britain, rather than ignoring Canada.

And while the digital revolution has enabled internet-based international communications, global supply chains and integrated financial markets, it has also created a situation in which Big Tech is stifling competition, content creators face unlevel playing fields, misinformation on unregulated social media undermines trust, and governments can manipulate internet protocols for national advantage. The U.S. needs to be on board in tackling any of these issues – Silicon Valley, after all, is home to many of Big Tech’s major players and the data centres on which they rely – and Canada and the U.S. have ample scope for common approaches on protocols, competition policy, content rights and data security.

It is a positive thing that American interest in multilateralism is back. But shared international co-operation must be leveraged to build effective coalitions, not American dominance. Canada has a clear economic and geopolitical interest in reinvigorating the bilateral relationship with the United States. But demonstrating that they can reboot a strained relationship with a close neighbour would also help the U.S., whose credibility has been compromised with allies and foes alike.

Editor’s note: This article was published as Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig were in the process of returning home. It has been updated to remove a suggestion that the U.S. was not helping with their release.

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