Under Biden, Canada-U.S. Relations Will Look Familiar – With a Couple Twists

In late February, President Biden held his first foreign meeting; it was with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. But what does President Biden mean for Canada? And what does Prime Minister Trudeau mean for the United States? And what do the two mean for left politics on the continent?

In Canadian foreign relations, the most worn tropes are those regarding the country’s relationship with the United States: “Closest friend.” “Greatest ally.” “Shared values.” In late February, President Biden held his first foreign meeting; it was with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. For Canada’s political class, any other choice would have been an insult, revealing at once a long history of being thin-skinned when it comes to symbolic politics and the fact that the relationship between the two countries is indeed extraordinarily important. The two heads of government covered a range of topics including the Keystone XL pipeline (which Biden opposes and Trudeau supports), the pandemic and post-pandemic recovery, the president’s “Buy American” plan (Trudeau wants exemptions for Canada), China (including the fate of two detained Canadians), and climate change.

The meeting was a preview of the future focus of the coming years in the U.S.-Canada relationship, which further reinforced an emergent narrative stretching back to the Democratic primaries, but only picking up steam once Biden was nominated and, ultimately, won the presidential election. After four years of unpredictability, conflict, and battles long thought to have been settled, U.S.-Canada relations were back on a predictable footing, the ‘new old normal’. Previous squabbles would remain - softwood lumber, dairy – which wouldn’t be ideal, but they would be coherent, and at least keeping with expectations.

During the Trump years, warnings that the relationship between the two countries would fracture for the long-term were common. The battle of renegotiating NAFTA, steel and aluminum tariffs, NATO funding. Those warnings seem misplaced now. Relationships that stretch back centuries tend to weather storms quite well. More importantly, interests speak. As the U.S. State Department notes, in 2019 the two countries traded US$725bn worth of goods and services. The bottom line, “Canada and the U.S. are each other’s’ largest export markets, and Canada is the number one export market for more than 30 U.S. States.” Indeed, during that NAFTA renegotiation battle, the Canadian strategy was to build or strengthen relationships at the state and local level alongside federal overtures, providing a workout at the time that will pay dividends for trade during the Biden administration — as much if not more than it did during the Trump years.


The 'new old normal'?

But what does President Biden mean for Canada? And what does Prime Minister Trudeau mean for the United States? And what do the two mean for left politics on the continent? In aftermath of the Trump years, there is a belief that the bar has been set so low that Biden does not have to do much to meet expectations. That’s unlikely to hold, which will be unwelcome news for both the president and the prime minister. Trump was a cartoonish authoritarian character, a buffoon, a caricature at once dangerous and absurd who made his opponents – most outside the Republican Party, some inside it – look better by comparison no matter what they did. That included Canada’s Trudeau, who could gesture south, or nod ever-so-slightly, or just pause and not say anything for over 20 seconds when asked about Trump’s treatment of protesters, and then invite the comparison, as if the alternative to a centrist government in Canada was an authoritarian populist in the United States. Sure, he bought a pipeline while climate change rages, fought Indigenous kids in court, sold arms to a butcher regime in Saudi Arabia, broke a promise on electoral reform, etc., etc. But have you seen the alternative?

Biden himself has been enjoying the same cover. For instance, after reopening a detention facility, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki tried to make a distinction between the Trump administration’s policy of caging kids and the move. “That is never our intention of replicating the immigration policies of the past administration,” she said. In her defense, there is indeed a difference, though one of degree, which she pointed out: “…we are in a circumstance where we are not going to expel unaccompanied minors at the border. That would be inhumane. That is not what we’re going to do here as an administration. We need to find places that are safe under COVID protocols for kids to be where they can have access to education, health and mental services, consistent with their best interest.” But the focus is less on the policy that produced such facilities—which goes back years—than it is on whether it’s the same or better than the previous administration’s efforts.

Comparisons to the Trump administration as excuses for shoddy policymaking north and south will not last forever. Thus, one aspect of current U.S.-Canada relations is that before long, the progressive or “progressive” policies of each side will no longer be viewed through the prism of populist authoritarianism, but rather on their own merits or demerits. People will start to ask each government “okay, but what have you done (for me)?” That will make politics more difficult for each, and that ought to be welcomed.

Looking back at past Democratic administrations and Liberal governments, the most likely outcome of their simultaneous governing will be to reinforce a centrist liberalism that is largely pro-business and light-to-medium on welfare state programming, including Covid recovery. Thus, we might expect modest amounts of funding, means-testing, and expiry dates. That Biden and Trudeau will lose the Trump comparison – the trump card(!) – is not likely to push them in radical directions, but rather towards a familiar center in which they will settle comfortably, with some exceptions.


Twists on the classics? 

One such exception may be climate change. The Biden administration and Trudeau government are more ambitious than their predecessors, but Biden is more ambitious than Trudeau. As Vancouver-based journalist Charlie Smith argues, Biden’s climate plan “ups the ante” for Trudeau. He cites the influence of the Sunrise Movement on the president’s plan, the $2 trillion in spending (far more per capita than Canada), opposing Keystone, and inviting officials onto the team to communicate the emergency and support ambitious action; including Deb Haaland as the Secretary of the Interior, Gina McCarthy as national climate adviser, and John Kerry as climate czar. Of course, all of this assumes that Biden and his officials deliver on their promises. The same is true for Trudeau. That assumption cannot be taken for granted, even as each promises to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 and cooperate on ventures that may include, as Bloomberg reports, “signaling out countries with weaker climate laws.”

Central issues in addition to climate change are trade and China. Trade will turn on the question of whether – and if so, to what extent – Canada will be exempted from Biden’s “Buy American” policy. Much has been made of the issue, but as much as the challenge is new, it’s also an iteration of protectionist challenges that have been met before. The matter will be a point of contention, but the free trade consensus and cross-border corporate interests are formidable, suggesting that pro-free trade capital will find a way, as it usually does, to render Biden’s protectionist undertakings – at least as far as Canada is concerned – more of a patchwork program than a blanket policy. Again, the work done by Canadian officials at the federal, state, and local level in the United States to renegotiate NAFTA during the Trump administration will serve the Trudeau government well here.

China is all together a more difficult and perhaps sinister issue. Biden has promised to assist Trudeau in securing the release of two Canadians who are being held hostage – that, essentially, is what is happening – by the Chinese state. That is welcome news. The two countries also plan to work together to “compete” with China, just days after the Canadian Parliament – not the government – voted a non-binding motion to declare China’s treatment of its Uighur minority in Xinjiang as genocide. Canada is the second country to make such a declaration, after the United States did so under the Trump administration – though in the case of the U.S., it was government policy.

Resisting authoritarian state brutality ought to be welcomed, as should encouraging the extension of human rights, especially minority rights. But the risk of sleepwalking into a new Cold War is real. The Trudeau and Biden governments seem to see eye-to-eye on China. Each will welcome support from the other. But the agenda matters. There is a difference between articulating or supporting values of freedom and universal rights – though the U.S. and Canada have patently sketchy histories and presents on both counts, at home and abroad – and pursuing a Cold War or ‘War of Civilizations’ approach reminiscent of the Soviet era or the imperial misadventures that led to, among other things, the Iraq War. If Canada and the United States further commit to move in lockstep on China policy, observers ought to keep their eyes on more than what is just in front of them.

Under the Biden administration and a Liberal government in Canada, U.S.-Canada relations are likely to resemble familiar past decades of mostly free-trade, niche squabbles, and mutually-reinforcing liberal orthodoxy. The climate file may prove notable, with Biden pressing Canada – at least implicitly – towards being more ambitious. Climate change, as an existential threat, is the issue to watch. However, adjacent to climate is the China file, where there may be more going on than what is immediately perceived. There, once more, is a risk that U.S.-Canada policy aims for more than releasing detained Canadians or securing rights for minority populations and ventures once more into imperial folly. Those keeping a close watch on relations between the two countries should take care that a return to the old normal does not obscure significant developments, for better or worse.

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