Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump arrive to take part in a plenary session at the NATO Summit in Watford, Hertfordshire, England, on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump arrive to take part in a plenary session at the NATO Summit in Watford, Hertfordshire, England, on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Dawn of Biden era offers new opportunities, old challenges for Canada-U.S. relations

U.S. filed the first enforcement action of USMCA era earlier this month over access to Canadian dairy markets

If Donald Trump has anything in common with Canada, it might be this: a shared craving for the attention of the American people that at times can border on the pathological.

Both could go through withdrawal symptoms in the new year.

Whatever else history will say about the outgoing president, he had a knack for scratching that uniquely Canadian itch for acknowledgment from south of the border, even if it often left a painful welt.

“South Park” fans might call it the “blame Canada” doctrine: Trump branded the country a national-security threat, an existential danger to U.S. farmers and manufacturers, and a place unworthy of U.S.-made pandemic protection.

He decried “two-faced” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a “very dishonest and weak” leader, and admitted to disliking former foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland, who he reportedly said “hates America.”

After Canada’s walk-on part in the U.S. reality-TV zeitgeist, the Joe Biden era will be boring by comparison — not such a bad thing, said Roy Norton, a former senior diplomat who did two stints at the Canadian Embassy in the 1990s and 2000s.

“In Washington, I used to find that not being on the radar screen was usually preferable to being on the radar screen,” said Norton, now a diplomat-in-residence at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ont.

“When you are, you’re the target, and people are gunning for you. Certainly, Trump exercised that.”

Canada-U.S. expert Eric Miller opted for a different metaphor.

“Some people are thinking that this is all going to have been like ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ where you’re going to wake up and it was all a scary dream,” said Miller, president of the Rideau Potomac Strategy Group in Washington.

“But in reality, the world has changed very significantly over the last four years, and so a good part of what the Biden administration is going to be focused on is dealing with the immediate problem.”

Pulling the U.S. out of its pandemic-induced economic tailspin will be Job 1, which means Canadian priorities may have to take a back seat, particularly if there’s a perception they run counter to those of the United States.

Lingering disdain for globalization, distrust of multilateral trade deals and a strong protectionist sentiment — more than 74 million Americans voted for Trump, after all — could prove quite liberating for Canada, Miller suggested.

“One political wag put it years ago that Canada sometimes acts like a teenage girl moping around their room, asking, ‘When is he going to call me?’ but that attitude has changed,” he said.

“Canada will, I think, be more willing to forge its own course and to be less dependent on thinking about the U.S. paying attention to us as a validation of how well or not well we are doing as a nation in the world.”

Regardless of what most observers expect to be a more diplomatic and dignified approach to foreign relations, a host of irritants will persist. But the relationship between the two countries is more than a dossier of sticking points, said Norton — and Trump’s departure offers an opportunity to revisit some of the bigger, broader themes that used to define it.

“We do ourselves a disservice by thinking narrowly about the Canada-U.S. relationship in terms of the bilateral relationship — Keystone XL and softwood and Section 232 tariffs and so on and so forth,” he said.

“What’s more important to us … is international rules. It’s a functioning multilateral system, it’s the United States, and other superpowers and would-be superpowers, acceding to the standards of behaviour set by the world, collectively.”

That would change the backdrop, moving high-level narratives away from Twitter and cable news and back to the vaulted ceilings, boardroom tables and corridors of power in places like the United Nations and the World Trade Organization.

But the agenda will remain familiar.

Biden’s campaign has promised to reverse Trump’s approval of Keystone XL, the controversial $7-billion cross-border pipeline expansion that critics say will make it impossible to meet emissions-reduction targets.

He’s laid out a detailed and comprehensive Buy American strategy for the country’s economic recovery, including a White House office dedicated to making sure U.S. workers and companies are first in line to reap the rewards.

The Biden administration will also inherit a feud between U.S. and Canadian dairy producers with all the hallmarks of a trade fight that could rival the longevity and stubbornness of the softwood lumber dispute.

And he has nominated cabinet members whose track records suggest they won’t back down from fights.

John Kerry, Biden’s hand-picked envoy on climate change, was secretary of state in 2015 when he successfully urged president Barack Obama to reject Keystone XL.

Tom Vilsack, Biden’s proposed new agriculture secretary, cheered U.S. trade ambassador Robert Lighthizer’s decision earlier this month to formally accuse Canada of denying U.S. dairy producers rightful access to markets north of the border.

And Katherine Tai, a trade-talks veteran nominated as Lighthizer’s successor, is widely seen as a hard-nosed negotiator whose main role will be to enforce existing trade agreements and Buy American rules.

The U.S. filed the first enforcement action of the USMCA era earlier this month over access to Canadian dairy markets, followed within days by a similar Canadian complaint over American tariffs on softwood exports.

Navigating those shoals will fall to Biden’s team — well aware that while the Democrats won the election, notwithstanding Trump’s persistent efforts to subvert the result, putting American interests first will be vital to bridging the country’s gaping political and cultural divide.

Whether Canada gets caught in the middle of that Buy American tug of war will be a burning question next year.

“It’s a nice bumper sticker — everybody knows that — but it presents problems,” Charlie Dent, a former Pennsylvania congressman, told a recent Wilson Center panel about Biden’s protectionist promise.

“I think, for a variety of reasons, that the Biden administration will behave in a much more multilateral manner, that they will not embrace what was the ‘America First’ agenda.”

James McCarten, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Donald TrumpJoe BidenUSA

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Photo: Surrey RCMP
Surrey RCMP arrests two boys, age 16, during dial-a-dope investigation in Whalley

Sergeant Elenore Sturko said one boy is ‘alleged to have been in possession of a loaded handgun at the time of his arrest’

The new Phoenix Flame BBQ truck serves as a “Mobile Community Kitchen” in the Surrey area. (Photo: phoenixsociety.com)
New ‘Phoenix Flame BBQ’ truck now mobile with food for Surrey’s ‘hard-to-reach populations’

Also launched: Another Surrey Honda Raffle to help the Surrey-based agency and others

A proposed multi-family, multi-building development in east White Rock was the subject of a public hearing Monday evening. (City of White Rock image)
Pros and cons of White Rock housing development debated at virtual public hearing

Affordable housing need, traffic concerns among reasons cited for and against Beachway project

BC Human Rights Tribunal. (The Canadian Press)
Human rights tribunal rejects complaint against Surrey brewery

Tribunal dismisses former worker’s claim he was bullied because of his ethnicity

A memorial of flowers, notes and photos grew quickly on the median adjacent to where Paul Prestbakmo died on Aug. 16. (Tracy Holmes photo)
Witness in South Surrey murder trial says he saw Paul Prestbakmo get stabbed

Defence questions difference between witness’ statements to police, testimony

Health Minister Adrian Dix looks on as Dr. Bonnie Henry pauses for a moment as she gives her daily media briefing regarding COVID-19 for British Columbia in Victoria, B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
7 additional deaths and 542 new COVID-19 cases in B.C.

Provincial health officials reported 18 new COVID-19 cases linked to variants of concern

Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson (Office of the Chief Justice)
Judge questions whether B.C.’s top doctor appreciated right to religious freedom

Lawyer for province says Dr. Henry has outlined the reasons for her orders publicly

A sample of guns seized at the Pacific Highway border crossing from the U.S. into B.C. in 2014. Guns smuggled from the U.S. are used in criminal activity, often associated with drug gangs. (Canada Border Service Agency)
B.C. moves to seize vehicles transporting illegal firearms

Bill bans sale of imitation or BB guns to young people

BC Housing minister David Eby is concerned that Penticton council’s decision to close a local homeless shelter will result in a “tent city” similar to this one in Everett, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / Black Press file)
‘Disappointed and baffled’ B.C. housing minister warns of tent city in Penticton

Penticton council’s decision to close a local homeless shelter could create tent city, says David Eby

A recently published study out of UBC has found a link between life satisfaction levels and overall health. (Pixabay)
Satisfied with life? It’s likely you’re healthier for it: UBC study

UBC psychologists have found those more satisfied with their life have a 26% reduced risk of dying

A vial of some of the first 500,000 of the two million AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine doses that Canada has secured through a deal with the Serum Institute of India in partnership with Verity Pharma at a facility in Milton, Ont., on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio - POOL
Federal panel recommends 4-month gap between COVID vaccine doses due to limited supply

The recommendation applies to all COVID-19 vaccines currently approved in Canada

Emergency crews are on scene at Walnut Grove Secondary School after a report of a bomb threat at Walnut Grove Secondary School on March 3, 2021. The school was safely evacuated. (Shane MacKichan/Special to Langley Advance Times)
UPDATE: Bomb threat forces evacuation of Langley high school

Police asked the public to avoid 88th Avenue and Walnut Grove Drive

A vial of Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine is pictured at a family doctor office, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021 in Paris. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP -Christophe Ena
Trudeau ‘optimistic’ that timeline for rollout of COVID vaccines can be accelerated

Canada set to receive more than 6M COVID-19 vaccine dose than initially expected, by end of March

Beginning late Tuesday, anti-pipeline protesters blocked the intersection of Hastings Street and Clark Drive in Vancouver. (Instagram/Braidedwarriors)
Demonstrators block key access to Vancouver port over jail for pipeline protester

They group is protesting a 90-day jail sentence handed to a fellow anti-pipeline protester

Most Read