WASHINGTON—Wasn’t this supposed to be easier?
When Joe Biden became the U.S. president after four years of Donald Trump’s truculence and tariffs, bureaucrats in Ottawa — and a lot of other Canadians — breathed a sigh of relief, anticipating a smoother road ahead in 2021. We recalled how Biden had dined with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa, talking up his family connections to Canada and his belief that its friendship — its “family connection” — was vital to the U.S.
Well, as 2021 ends with Canada threatening a trade war over one of Biden’s core policies — a capstone on a year of tough sledding on a number of cross-border fronts — that family analogy might include a bullying older sibling or, at the very least, a neglectful parent. Has Biden been friendlier? Sure, in his photo-op platitudes. But has that made anything easier for Canada? It’s hard to see how.
Biden had barely been inaugurated when he cancelled the planned Keystone XL pipeline, which Trudeau’s government — and the province of Alberta — had considered key to Canada’s economic health.
It was a tough blow, but not an unexpected one, since Biden had promised to cancel it as part of the climate change agenda he’d campaigned on. But some wondered if there might be a diplomatic payoff to follow — former foreign affairs minister John Baird told me he thought there might have been a softening of “buy American” positions, for instance.
Instead, Biden ramped up the “buy American” rhetoric on government procurement. He doubled tariffs on Canadian lumber. He dragged his feet on reopening the U.S. land border after Canada had already welcomed Americans back. Biden hasn’t intervened on Canada’s behalf as Michigan’s governor attempts to shut down the a critical oil and gas pipeline. Some Canadians felt slighted to be left out of the new nuclear submarine pact Biden signed with Australia and the U.K. for Pacific defence (although Trudeau claimed not to want in). And now, as the year ends, Canada continues to mount an all-hands-on-deck campaign against Biden’s proposed subsidy for electric vehicles that are built in the U.S., saying it violates trade agreements and will destroy the Canadian auto industry.
Notably, on the day before Trudeau visited the White House in November, Biden went to an electric vehicle plant in Michigan to brag about how the coming subsidy would result in good jobs for unionized American workers. The next day in the Oval Office, Biden repeatedly shrugged off questions about it from Canadian journalists about it; indeed, he seemed annoyed to be pestered about what he considered a trivial matter in the bilateral relationship — even though it was Canada’s top priority for the visit, and its top foreign affairs priority overall.
Trudeau has been taking it in stride, at least publicly, and refusing to put a pessimistic spin on this year’s events. “Biden has huge, huge domestic responsibilities that he’s trying to navigate,” he recently told my colleague Susan Delacourt. “He’s one of the good guys on climate change, on inclusion, on gender, on the things that we know are building blocks to safe, successful societies and democracies. He’s on the right side of things, so he needs to be successful.”
Sure. Biden recognizes the existential threats that his country faces — physically, from climate change, and institutionally, from attacks by his predecessor’s anti-democratic supporters. He is trying desperately to pass economic measures he thinks will reshape the country, and justice reforms that are generations overdue. He faces a divided electorate that many otherwise cool-headed observers think is on the brink of civil war — or is already engaged in the beginning stages of one. Many Canadians would agree with Biden’s thinking on that. And many, like Trudeau, are pulling for him to be successful in meeting those challenges.
The challenge for Canada’s leadership is to not be overlooked, and to find ways of reminding Biden that he was the one who said the friendship between Canada and the U.S. “is absolutely critical to the United States, our well-being, our security, our sense of ourselves.” He needs to be convinced that Canada’s success isn’t a distraction from U.S. success, but can be a component of it.
Certainly there have been happier moments in the relationship this year. The “two Michaels” came home, thanks in part to the co-operation of the United States in securing their release. There have been productive meetings and summits not just between our countries’ leaders, but among all the core ministers and secretaries of the two governments — one of those summits produced a “road map for a renewed Canada-U.S. relationship” that promises co-ordinated action on all kinds of bilateral and global issues. Another summit saw Canada join a continental supply-chain working group. The year saw steps forward, as well as those back.
“This is one of the easiest relationships you can have as an American president, and one of the best,” Biden said when Trudeau was sitting beside him at the White House. Maybe from where he was sitting it looked easy. From across the room, it looked like a tough one for Trudeau to navigate.
“I think we all understand in a relationship as big and as deep, that is all-encompassing for so many of us, as the relationship between Canada in the United States, there are always going to be challenges coming up,” Trudeau told reporters after that meeting. “And as we solve some, new ones will arise.”
What’s important, he said, is that the two countries are able to talk through the issues. “Those conversations will continue to happen,” he said.
By all appearances, there is less open hostility in those conversations than there was a year ago. But Canada’s government isn’t threatening a trade war because things have become easy. Even when the faces were friendlier, a lot of 2021’s conversations were still very, very hard.