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  • Roland Paris

Joe Biden Will Be a Better Friend to Canada – But at a Price

Published in the Globe and Mail, October 24, 2020

After four years of President Donald Trump’s insults, threats and sanctions against Canada and other close allies of the United States, the prospect that American voters might replace him with Joe Biden, who has promised to repair relations with America’s traditional partners, seems tantalizingly close. But Canada will be tested no matter which candidate wins the coming presidential election.

The tenor of bilateral relations will undoubtedly improve if Mr. Biden is victorious. On a visit to Ottawa in December, 2016, he spoke of his family’s “long, deep ties with Canada” and described the countries' relationship as “like family.” Many of his current campaign pledges also align with Canadian priorities, including his vows to rejoin the Paris climate accord, defend democracy and human rights at home and abroad, treat immigrants in a “fair and humane” manner, recommit to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and work with allies to oppose Russian and Chinese belligerence.

Mr. Biden’s economic policies, however, pose risks for Canada. His US$2-trillion plan for a “green recovery” from the pandemic recession would use tax, trade and investment policies to reduce reliance on foreign manufacturing and create clean-technology jobs in the United States. Although the plan emphasizes innovation and environmental sustainability, it also represents the biggest “Buy America” proposal in U.S. history – a populist appeal to the same working-class constituencies that supported Mr. Trump in 2016. The United States is becoming more protectionist; Canada risks being sideswiped by new policies privileging U.S. companies and workers.

But where there is risk, there is also opportunity. Ottawa could devise bilateral green-recovery proposals – including joint initiatives on clean technology – and propose these plans to Mr. Biden’s transition team. Doing so might also strengthen Canada’s case for the Keystone XL pipeline, which the Democratic candidate opposes.

Similar thinking should guide Canada’s approach to a re-elected Trump administration. For example, the idea of protecting “critical” technologies and supply chains – including those relating to medical protective equipment, key pharmaceutical ingredients, semiconductors, advanced robotics, artificial intelligence, and certain minerals and communications equipment – is quickly gaining support among both Republicans and Democrats. If the United States begins “reshoring” international supply chains, Canada must persuade U.S. policy makers that we share the same “shore.” Earlier this year, Ottawa and Washington negotiated a joint plan to secure critical minerals such as uranium and rare earth elements – a possible model for other sectors.

China will also preoccupy the next U.S. administration. Both candidates view China as a strategic rival, if not an adversary. The Canadian government is currently devising a new framework for its relations with China. Among other things, Ottawa could help the U.S. assemble a broader coalition of like-minded countries to counter Beijing’s threats and bullying, which Canada has directly experienced.

Doing so would be easier with Mr. Biden in the White House. Many U.S. allies do not trust Mr. Trump, and his approach to China has fluctuated between obsequiousness and belligerence. Nevertheless, concern among democratic states over China’s ambitions and methods has been growing, along with their appetite for a more co-ordinated response. By helping to unite such a group, Canada could advance its own interests, assist the U.S. and strengthen multilateral co-operation among allies – a trifecta.

Ottawa must also ready to push back against the U.S. if it threatens Canadian interests. In September, the Trump administration abruptly dropped its “national security” tariffs on imports of Canadian steel and aluminum just hours before Canadian retaliatory levies were to take effect. Lesson learned.

Neutralizing bilateral problems before they escalate is even better. To this end, Ottawa has multiplied its contacts at all levels of the U.S. political system during the Trump years. But continued vigilance will be key: Mr. Trump in a second-term presidency could be even more unleashed than during his first; and notwithstanding Mr. Biden’s friendliness toward Canada, the U.S. will remain a deeply divided, inwardly focused country where “America First” ideas have made significant inroads among legislators and large swaths of the public.

Canadian officials are preparing for either candidate’s victory – and wisely planning to avoid weighing into U.S. domestic politics if the election result is contested. Whatever the outcome, managing relations with our restless southern neighbour will remain a challenge.

Roland Paris is a professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa, an associate fellow of Chatham House and a former foreign-policy adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.


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