U.S. President Joe Biden has named Pennsylvania powerbroker and Washington lobbyist David Cohen as the next ambassador to Canada at a time when Ottawa appears to be making little headway on a host of bilateral issues.
The White House announced Wednesday that Mr. Cohen, a senior executive with telecommunications giant Comcast, has been formally selected as the U.S. envoy to Ottawa. The posting will require the approval of the U.S. Senate.
The announcement came on the same day that the Biden administration extended its current land border restrictions until Aug. 21, days after Ottawa said it would allow fully vaccinated Americans to travel to Canada as of Aug. 9.
The U.S. ambassador to Canada is one of the key players in Ottawa because of the deep trade ties and security and defence relationships between the two countries.
David MacNaughton, who was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ambassador to Washington until 2019, said Mr. Cohen will not have an easy time in the post, given the host of troubling bilateral issues that have arisen since Mr. Biden moved into the White House.
“The expectation at the outset was that the Biden years were going to be a lot easier for us to deal with, but we are seeing that a lot of issues remain challenging,” he said.
While the Prime Minister and President Biden have a warm relationship, as do many cabinet ministers with their U.S. counterparts, Mr. MacNaughton said the new administration hasn’t been particularly helpful on issues such as the Line 5 pipeline, softwood lumber, Buy America and protectionist trade measures being discussed by Democrats in Congress.
“If he thinks this is going to be ‘best friends’ and not really a difficult post … I think he will find there are some really tough issues that are going to have to be dealt with,” Mr. MacNaughton said. “When you think of the magnitude of our commercial relationship [and] of our security and defence relationship, I think a lot of Americans underestimate the importance.”
Derek Burney, former Canadian ambassador to Washington, said Canada does not appear to be on the radar at the White House, and he is uncertain whether Mr. Cohen will have much influence with the President.
Mr. Cohen, who was the host of Mr. Biden’s first fundraising event as presidential candidate in 2019, follows in the footsteps of other U.S. envoys to Canada who were major U.S. donors to Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns.
“Who is he connected to in D.C.? Because I haven’t read anything about his background that would tell me he is close to Biden in any way ... other than he was obviously a big fundraiser,” said Mr. Burney, who was envoy to Washington under former Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney. “This guy Cohen is going to have his hands full because the relationship is not in great shape.”
Mr. Burney added that there has been no movement on major bilateral files since Mr. Biden became president. Mr. Trudeau, he said, hasn’t even been invited to the White House, although the two had a Zoom meeting in February.
“We seem to be blasé about the fact that Biden has done nothing for us other than make life difficult especially on the trade front,” he said. “Despite the so-called bromance between the two.”
Mr. Burney expressed concerns that Biden administration wants stricter interpretation of duty-free rules for cars shipped across the border that were agreed under the renegotiated United States Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA) in 2019. The Trump administration insisted on 75 per cent North American content for core auto parts, up 62.5 per cent under NAFTA.
The U.S. is now looking to push the calculation to 100 per cent under pressure from labour unions, Mr. Burney said.
“Given the importance of the auto sector in our trade with the United States, this is way bigger than softwood lumber or dairy or any of the other things they are hammering us on,” he said.
Another major irritant right now is Michigan’s bid to shut down the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline, a key petroleum conduit for Central Canada that runs through Great Lakes states, and the Biden Administration’s apparent lack of interest in intervening in the dispute. The petroleum pipeline carries up to 540,000 barrels a day from Alberta and Saskatchewan through Wisconsin and Michigan before re-entering Canada at Sarnia, Ont. The Canadian government has warned a shutdown would represent a threat to this country’s energy security.
“The U.S. administration has ordered an environmental study of that pipeline. My god, do people realize if that pipeline is stopped, what it is going to do to the people of Ontario and Quebec,” Mr. Burney said.
Mr. Cohen was a chief lobbyist and senior adviser to the CEO of Comcast. He served as chief of staff to former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell before becoming an executive with Comcast.
In 2012, he was credited with lobbying U.S. regulators on the merger of Comcast and NBC Universal.
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