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

TEASE PHOTO: Teens at the Bumpers dance club in Whalley in the 1980s, in a photo posted to the "Bumpers / The Zone OFFICIAL Party Page" on Facebook.com.
SURREY NOW & THEN: Bumpers and other teen dance clubs were big in the 1980s

A weekly look back at Surrey-area landmark sites and events

Gurinder Mann. (Submitted photo)
Surrey man receives prestigious restorative justice award

East Newton resident Gurinder Mann one of five to receive a Community Safety and Crime Prevention Award

An example of a Surrey Police cruiser, showcased at Mayor Doug McCallum’s State of the City Address at Civic Hotel in May of 2019. (File photo: Amy Reid)
Surrey Police Service looking to hire in-house lawyer

Solicitor to work within Office of the Chief Constable, serve on internal and external committees to ‘represent the SPS’s interests’

Surrey RCMP say that after checking on a “semi-conscious” driver in Whalley on Jan. 20, 2021, officers found about 21 grams of suspected cocaine, 68 grams of suspected fentanyl, about $1,400 in case, a stolen shotgun and ammunition. (Photo: Surrey RCMP handout)
Surrey RCMP say ‘semi-conscious’ driver found with drugs, gun

Officer saw ‘open alcohol and suspected drugs’ inside the vehicle, police say

Surrey provincial court. (File photo: Tom Zytaruk)
New COVID-19 protocols set for provincial courthouses

The new rules were issued on Jan. 21, and took effect immediately

Toronto Public Health nurse Lalaine Agarin sets up for mass vaccination clinic in Toronto, Jan. 17, 2021. B.C. is set to to begin its large-scale immunization program for the general public starting in April. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
B.C.’s COVID-19 mass vaccinations expected to start in April

Clinics to immunize four million people by September

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam speaks during a daily briefing in Ottawa. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)
31 cases of COVID-19 variants detected in Canada: Health officials

Dr. Theresa Tam made announces 13 more variant COVID-19 cases in Canada

Daily COVID-19 cases reported to each B.C. health region, to Jan. 20, 2021. Island Health in blue, Northern Health green, Interior Health orange, Vancouver Coastal in red and Fraser Health in purple. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection rate stays stable with 508 cases Friday

Vaccine delivered to more than 110,000 high-risk people

The District of Saanich’s communications team decided to take part in a viral trend on Thursday and photoshopped U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders into a staff meeting photo. (District of Saanich/Twitter)
Bernie Sanders makes guest appearance municipal staff meeting in B.C.

Vancouver Island firefighters jump on viral trend of photoshopped U.S. senator

School District 57 headquarters in Prince George. (Mark Nielsen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter)
Prince George school district settles with sexual abuse victim

Terms were part of an out-of-court settlement reached with Michael Bruneau, nearly four years after he filed a lawsuit

Police in Vancouver looking for male suspect who allegedly spat and attacked a store manager for not wearing a mask, at 7-Eleven near Alma Street and West 10th Avenue just before noon on Dec. 17, 2020. (Vancouver police handout)
VIDEO: Man spits on 7-Eleven manager over mask rule, sparking Vancouver police probe

‘Unfortunately, the store manager sustained a cut to his head during the assault’

The Vancouver-based SAR team successfully rescued two lost snowshoers off of the west side of Tim Jones Peak in the early morning of Monday, Jan. 19. (North Shore Rescue photo)
B.C.’s busiest SAR team raises alarm after 2021 begins with fatality, multiple rescues

‘People beyond ski resort areas of Seymour, Grouse, and Cypress go without cell reception,’ SAR warns

Competitors make their way through the course at the 2019 Canadian Cross Country Championships, which was hosted by Abbotsford in 2019. (File photo)
Abbotsford to host 2023 Canadian Cross Country Championships

Clearbrook Park last hosted the event in 2019, Ottawa hosting 2021 and 2022 races

Officers investigate the scene after a pedestrian was struck and killed on Friday morning. (Ben Lypka/Abbotsford News)
Male pedestrian, 37, killed in Abbotsford after being struck by vehicle

Collision took place in 31800 block of South Fraser Way on Friday morning

Most Read