On Nov. 7, Canadian Prime Minster Justin Trudeau became the first world leader to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris on their election win. On Monday, Trudeau was the first world leader to speak with Biden on the phone, further emphasizing that Biden has won the presidential election — and implying that Canada is eager to begin working with him.
Few will fault the Trudeau government for being keen to work with anyone who isn’t President Trump. For four years, the Liberals in Canada have had to manage the Trump regime as one might negotiate life with a toddler: with constant, exhausted attention. From the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement to tariffs to defense to the president’s botched covid-19 response and its effect on the border, Canada has had to manage the necessity of its relationship with the United States alongside an unpredictable, unreasonable, unproductive and often startlingly awful Trump administration. More than once, Trudeau has been called out for failing to condemn Trump’s actions. The best he could muster, it seems, was a long pause when asked about Trump’s police-state tactics against protesters in June. After the pause, Trudeau added: “We all watch in horror and consternation what’s going on in the United States.”
A Biden administration will be better for Canada and the world, but it is not without challenges for the Trudeau government. It’s just that those challenges will be more familiar and predictable, the sort that have marked U.S.-Canada relations for years.
For instance, Biden supports a “buy American” agenda that could mean protectionist measures for Canada. Trudeau has indicated he will resist any such efforts. Maybe he can. But the protectionist challenge won’t be resolved anytime soon, especially if Biden decides that the electoral future of the Democratic Party in the White House and Congress depends on continued success in competitive Rust Belt states. Softwood lumber — a perennial site of contention for the two countries — will no doubt remain contentious, too.
Biden’s climate plan is closer to Trudeau’s than Trump’s was — which is not surprising since Trump’s, well, didn’t really exist. Biden intends on rejoining the Paris accords, of which Canada is a part, and to hit net zero emissions by 2050, which is also Canada’s target. Indeed, Biden’s climate plan is, in some ways, more ambitious than the Liberal plan, with more aggressive spending, informed partly by the role the Sunrise Movement played in developing the environmental agenda. To the extent that regulatory regimes in the two countries become harmonized, climate policy could become more stable, coherent and effective. An optimist might wonder whether the two countries might entice each other into a race to the top, toward becoming the leader in climate spending and policy. That optimist would deserve a moment of daydreaming.
The Keystone XL pipeline will be a flashpoint for the Canada-U.S. relationship going forward. Biden has called the pipeline’s product “tarsands we don’t need,” adding that it is a “very, very high pollutant.” Trump supports Keystone, as does Trudeau and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who is betting on it for his embattled government and struggling province. The pipeline would carry crude from Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast. But what’s bad for Trudeau and Kenney isn’t bad for all Canadians, many of whom — including myself — oppose Keystone.
On his call with Biden, Trudeau also spoke to the president-elect about China’s de facto hostage-taking of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who were detained just after the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Canada at U.S. behest. The Trudeau government is no doubt hoping that the Biden administration will be a smarter, more effective ally when it comes to managing Canada’s relationship with China and its coercive diplomacy. Trump has set the bar so low that it would be difficult for Biden not to step over it. That would be good news for Canada, which has been caught between the United States and China for years.
And, of course, there’s the pandemic. The Biden transition team has already announced its covid-19 task force, which is welcome news. Better management of the pandemic and a vaccine program that looks beyond the United States’ own borders would be a boost for Canada. On top of that, the sooner the United States gets control of the pandemic, the better for the economy, trade and eventually the reopening of the border.
The Biden administration will present its own challenges and disappointments for the United States, Canada and the world. It’s inevitable. But it is a far more welcome challenge to struggle with the shortcomings of a Biden administration than it is to run up against the absurdity of the Trump administration.
Whatever lies in the future, for now, Canada and Canadians ought to take a moment to welcome the Biden administration, and perhaps even imagine ways it could induce the Trudeau government to do better itself.
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