If your exports were almost entirely dependent on your immediate neighbour buying your goods, as Canada is on the United States, you’d want that neighbour to be a stable, reliable and honest partner.
“Honest,” “reliable” and “stable” are not words that describe the man at the head of the previous U.S. administration. For four years, Ottawa had to manage a capricious American leader who abruptly imposed tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum, and who spread misinformation about Canada-U.S. trade in his campaign to renegotiate the North American free-trade agreement.
Just to make it crystal clear that the friendship between the two countries sharing the world’s longest undefended border was meaningless to him, Donald Trump also hurled personal insults at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, calling him “weak,” “dishonest” and “two-faced.”
He also belittled Western institutions such as NATO and pulled out of the Paris climate accord – the latter close to Mr. Trudeau’s heart and the former a critical alliance for a middle power such as Canada, which relies on international co-operation to get things done in the world.
So it goes without saying that Tuesday’s virtual bilateral summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Mr. Trudeau will signal a reset of relations between the two countries and their leaders.
Mr. Biden is not an insult-slinging, reality-bending narcissist. He’s a moderate political lifer who has made a point of trying to restore his country’s reputation on the international scene since taking power last month.
Last week, speaking to the Munich Security Conference from the confines of the White House, he emphatically promised an end to the transactional and confrontational nature of Mr. Trump’s America First foreign policy.
“America is back,” Mr. Biden told European leaders at the conference, inadvertently echoing Mr. Trudeau’s slogan in 2015 when the newly elected PM, having defeated the Harper Conservatives, said in Paris that “Canada is back” in the fight against climate change.
So now that everyone is back, will that translate into any benefits for Canada?
A cordial relationship with the U.S. is inherently good for Canada. During the Trump years, Ottawa spent much of its time working around the White House as it defended Canada’s status as a reliable American trading partner; in the years to come, the lines of communication will be more open between two like-minded administrations.
It would be a mistake, however, to think this will inoculate the relationship against the pressures of domestic U.S. politics. Mr. Biden made that clear on his first day in office, when he cancelled the Keystone XL pipeline project – rewarding his domestic political base by kicking Canada. The long-promised move was no surprise, but it still stung.
At the same time, Mr. Biden’s domestic agenda can be expected to be more pragmatic than Mr. Trump’s, and based less on whim, divisive rhetoric and misinformation. This is where Mr. Trudeau has an opening with the new President.
The Prime Minister will not be talking to a wall when he reminds Mr. Biden that we are America’s closest ally and a member of the renewed NAFTA, and that we’re expecting something different from the Trump era on two critical files.
Mr. Trudeau should push Mr. Biden for exemptions from the “Made in America” rules for U.S. government procurement – a weakly enforced Trump policy that the new President has doubled down on, and which could harm Canadian manufacturers.
The PM should also ask for greater support from the U.S. in Canada’s effort to secure the releases of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, the two Canadians being held hostage by the Chinese government in retaliation for the arrest of Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition request. More generally, Canada and the U.S. need to be on the same page on China – which may involve Canada moving closer to the American position.
Success on these fronts will be an early litmus test of how Canada-U.S. relations will go under Mr. Biden, and of just how “back” the U.S. really is.
No Canadian government can ever expect its American counterpart to sacrifice more than minor domestic interests for the sake of our own priorities. But the Trudeau government can, at the very least, look forward to an end to the chaos and sabotage of the late, unlamented Trump years.
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