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Biden meets with Canadian and Mexican leaders, attempting a reset

President Biden hosted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador at the White House on Nov. 18. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/Reuters)
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President Biden met Thursday with the leaders of America’s neighbors to the north and south amid much praise on all sides, part of the president’s ongoing effort to rebuild relations with allies after a Trump administration that was often at odds with the nation’s longtime partners.

But the pleasantries belied the more complicated reality that while Canada and Mexico welcome Biden’s friendlier tone, major points of contention remain, including over U.S. immigration policies and the country’s approach to trade — both flash points under President Donald Trump — as well as disputes over climate change.

Speaking in the Oval Office, Biden complimented Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on “one of the easiest relationships you can have as an American President and one of the best.” Trudeau returned the favor, telling Biden the two leaders had “a lot of work to continue to do,” but that was “something that we’re always great partners on.”

The tête-à-tête between the American and Canadian leaders was the first of three meetings Biden hosted at the White House Thursday, including one with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador — who said he was grateful for the “treatment of respect” from the United States — and a third meeting among all three North American leaders.

The White House summit marked a return to the tradition of the three-way meetings after a four-year hiatus under Trump, who had a contentious relationship with Trudeau and former Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto.

Trump’s often belligerent tone masked the reality that across the political spectrum, U.S. political leaders are becoming more attuned to the way the global arena is viewed by American voters.

“U.S. foreign policy has become more domestically focused, whether Trump’s ‘America First’ or Biden’s ‘U.S. foreign policy for the American middle class,’ ” said Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, a global risk consultancy.

Still, Bremmer cautioned against making too direct a comparison between Biden and his predecessor, pointing to the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, earlier in this month, where Biden sought to reestablish American leadership in the climate fight after Trump withdrew from that effort.

Both López Obrador and Trudeau arrived at the summit with concerns about energy issues and the “Buy American” trade provisions supported by Biden. Biden’s roughly $2 trillion social spending plan — which the House hopes to vote on as early as this week — contains provisions that could provide consumers with up to $12,500 in tax credits for purchasing U.S.-made electric vehicles.

Mexican officials and executives see that provision as an affront to the cross-border automobile supply chain.

“The way I’ve seen them close themselves, they’ve closed themselves off and protected themselves, it’s incomprehensible from my perspective,” Mexico Secretary of Economy Tatiana Clouthier told the website Código Magenta in an interview broadcast on Tuesday.

Canadian officials also remain troubled by what they view as growing U.S. protectionism, especially over the tax credit for electric vehicles.

“Since the election of President Biden, we have stressed our concerns with respect to Buy American, which continues to pose a particular challenge not only for companies and workers here in Canada, but also in the United States,” Trudeau said earlier this week.

Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s deputy prime minister and finance minister, told reporters Wednesday that she, Trudeau and several other cabinet ministers had spent the day raising concerns on Capitol Hill about Buy American policies and the proposed electric vehicles tax.

Freeland said the Canadians were “very, very clear both in our meeting with the House team and our meeting with the Senate team about how important it is to Canada to have a resolution of the electric vehicle incentive proposal.”

Asked by reporters Thursday about Trudeau’s comments that the tax credits are a violation of the updated North American trade agreement, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “We don’t view it that way,” adding that the tax credits are “an opportunity to help consumers in this country.”

Energy policy has also recent driven a wedge between Biden and López Obrador. The Mexican president has proposed a large-scale reform of his country’s electrical system which U.S. business leaders say would discriminate against American energy producers. U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar this month said the U.S. had “serious concerns” about the overhaul.

U.S. climate activists also have complaints about López Obrador’s approach to climate. He has made conditions challenging for the country’s nascent renewables sector and done little to reduce carbon emissions, while championing the growth of the country’s oil industry.

Biden took office determined to repair relationships with foreign allies and to declare to the world that America was back after four years of chaos under Trump. He made a point of scheduling his first virtual meeting with a foreign leader with Trudeau in February, and his second with López Obrador in March. Vice President Harris also stopped in Mexico City on her first trip abroad in June.

Yet Biden has been met with skepticism on the world stage, in part because world leaders worry Trump, or someone like him, may return to power, and in part because of Biden’s own actions, including the turbulent withdrawal from Afghanistan.

In September, after Australia, Britain and the United States announced a security deal to help Australia procure U.S. nuclear-powered submarines — effectively cutting France out of an existing contract to supply Australia with submarines — French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian excoriated Biden in a radio interview: “This brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr. Trump used to do,” he said.

Psaki pushed back on the idea that Biden’s foreign policy approach shares many commonalities with that of Trump, pointing to issues ranging from “reengaging with allies around the world” to “acknowledging that climate is one of the biggest crises we face around the world, to ensuring that we are working to promote human rights around the world, freedom of press around the world.”

“I think the list of differences is probably a laundry list, and the list of similarities probably fits on the back of a tiny napkin,” Psaki said.

White House officials made clear heading into the day of the meetings that they expected no major new agreements or announcements. But in a call Wednesday night with reporters, they previewed a deal for Canada and Mexico to share some U.S.-supplied vaccines with more vulnerable countries.

The United States has already shared 10.9 million vaccines with Mexico, roughly 10 percent of the country’s total vaccine stock, a senior administration official said.

Yet despite the lack of big announcements connected to the summit, the meeting itself was notable. The last one, part of a tradition started under President George W. Bush, was more than five years ago, when the leaders of the three countries met in Canada.

Carin Zissis, editor in chief of the Council of the Americas website, said the three leaders face critical issues from confronting China to reviving the world economy.

“We know not everything is going to get solved in a one-day summit, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important,” Zissis said. “For the first time in five years, these leaders are coming together in a different climate, a much more friendly climate, to find ways to work together.”

López Obrador has presented himself as an ally to both the Trump and Biden administrations when it comes to migration and security, which in both cases has meant devoting Mexico’s security infrastructure to detaining migrants on their way to the U.S. border.

Mexico detained 41,000 migrants in September alone, the highest monthly total in history, and a number that increased notably since Harris’s June visit. That increase is likely due both to migration flows and a renewed Mexican commitment to deterrence in the wake of the visit, experts say.

But Mexican government officials have voiced frustration with the constant stream of U.S. demands that Mexico do more to curb migration.

At a news conference Thursday, López Obrador said restrictive immigration policies make little sense given the current need for migrant labor.

“Migrants should not be rejected when growth requires a workforce that in reality is insufficient both in the United States and in Canada,” he said. “For that reason, we should study the labor demand and open, in an orderly manner, the flow of migration.”

“The big question allies have is to what extent they can count on any American president given the likelihood that a policy commitment can be so easily overturned in the next election cycle,” Bremmer said.

López Obrador has advocated for America participation in a social welfare program that offers would-be migrants jobs planting trees, and is expected to continue pushing that idea despite concerns that the program has increased deforestation.

López Obrador has also directed his government to work with the United States on Biden’s goal of reducing illegal migration. Mexico’s concessions have provoked anger from some human rights advocates, however, who charge that Mexico is doing the work of a U.S. border wall.

Biden administration officials said before the summit that they did not expect such volatile issues as the influx of migrants to the southern border or Trump’s controversial “Remain in Mexico” policy to be big topics of discussion.

Immigration has been a difficult issue for Biden politically. He has been sharply critical of Trump’s toughest policies — from building a border wall to separating families to discouraging visitors from majority-Muslim countries — and sought to roll them back.

But Republicans have hammered Biden for being too lax, playing up images of chaotic scenes at the border as a growing number of migrants seek to cross into the U.S. That has left the administration groping for a balance that often seems to satisfy neither side.

Following the summit, one of the biggest challenges may be what remained unspoken — that any commitments could shift almost instantaneously with a new president, including the possible reemergence of Trump in 2024.