Off to a Good Start: The Trudeau-Biden Bilat

That recent four-year interregnum between normal American presidents presented Canada with some unprecedented, anomalous challenges. This week, we’re back to a default context of bilateral cooperation and coherence. Former Canadian Ambassador to the United States Michael Kergin provides his readout.

Adam Scotti


Michael Kergin

February 25, 2021

As far back as 1981, Ronald Reagan established an informal tradition that Canada would be the first country visited by a newly inaugurated American president. The pattern has since been broken only twice: by George W. Bush (he visited Mexico first) and Donald Trump (he only visited Canada once, to attend the G7 Summit at Charlevoix, departing prematurely and insulting the host when barely beyond Canadian airspace).

President Joe Biden has restored the tradition, albeit virtually. Indeed, Biden upped the ante from the usual pro forma meet and greet by adding relevant cabinet members and senior officials for a substantive working meeting. The summit (and it can be called that) resulted in a jointly drafted twelve page “roadmap” setting out the direction of the relationship.

The Roadmap for a Renewed US-Canada Partnership (published on the PMO and White House websites) establishes a blueprint for managing a broad range of cross-border issues. Confronting COVID-19 and preserving the environment are flagged among the highest priorities for the two governments.

On COVID, the document proposes “to strengthen comprehensive and cross-sectoral efforts to control the pandemic, collaborate on public health responses and build resilience against future outbreaks”. Regarding Canada-US collaboration on a shared environment, the Roadmap commits to joint actions to combat climate change, reduce greenhouse gasses, develop cross-border clean energy transmissions and seek a zero-emissions vehicle future.

An agreement by both leaders to launch a bilateral high-level climate ministerial to “coordinate cooperation between the United States and Canada to increase ambition aligned to the Paris Agreement and net-zero objectives” addresses the threat to the global commons.

Security is never far from US concerns when it comes to Canada. The Roadmap contains a substantive section titled Bolstering Defence and Security. At the regional level, the prime minister and the president have agreed to expand cooperation on continental defence, including by modernizing the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD). They directed that the Cross-Border Crime Forum be reestablished to facilitate cooperation among law enforcement bodies in the areas of currency, drug and human trafficking. Important for Canada, the leaders instructed their officials to explore the creation of a cross-border task force to address gun smuggling and trafficking.

In response to a perennial request from the US, Canada accepted the inclusion of a statement referring to the importance of investing in “modern, ready and capable forces in line with commitments to NATO under the 2014 Wales Summit Defense Investment Pledge”. This essentially commits Canada to make sincere efforts to increase its defence spending to the NATO agreed minimum of two percent of GDP.

The Roadmap extended both countries’ intentions to cooperate on a continent-wide basis, from the Arctic to the Rio Grande. The leaders announced the “launch of an expanded Canada-US Arctic Dialogue to cover cross-cutting issues related to continental security, economic and social development and Arctic governance”. They dedicated themselves to working towards “reviving the North American Leaders’ Summit as a recommitment of solidarity between Canada, the United states and Mexico”.

In a final section titled Building Global Alliances, the principals affirmed their support for the UN, G7 and G20, as well as NATO, the WTO and the Five Eyes community.

As evidenced by the section titled Building Back Better, the president and the prime minister hold very similar political and social philosophies. Both “share a vision for a sustainable and inclusive economic recovery that strengthens the middle class,” and that “building back better” can be achieved only by addressing the disproportionate economic impacts on women, youth, underrepresented groups and Indigenous peoples.

The scope and level of detail of the twelve-page Roadmap are impressive, especially coming within the early weeks of a presidency beset by unprecedented domestic events.

Having been involved in almost a dozen Canada-US head of government meetings under prime ministers Mulroney, Chretien and Martin, I can attest personally to the real complexity of preparing for these meetings. Many different government agencies are engaged, requiring countless officials on both sides of the border to reach agreements framed in mutually acceptable language.

The scope and level of detail of the twelve-page Roadmap are impressive, especially coming within the early weeks of a presidency beset by unprecedented domestic events.

This could only have been accomplished by powerful direction from the White House. The Roadmap is emblematic of the importance the president personally attaches to resetting the relationship after four years of Trump, while illustrating the affinity of the leaders’ respective political philosophies.

But affinity and civility alone do not enable bilateral differences to be easily resolved, despite expectations from some quarters.

Disappointment has been expressed that Canada was not “allowed” to make the case for Keystone XL. Keystone died during Biden’s nomination campaign with a spike through the heart from the progressive wing of the Democratic party. It can be argued that “Ripping the Band Aid off” on the first day of the presidency avoided the humiliation of a Canadian “failure” which doubtlessly would have arisen from rejection after weeks of lobbying “at the highest level”.

During his media statement, President Biden did not address Canadian concerns regarding “Buy American”. Nevertheless, the Roadmap mentions “launching a strategy to strengthen the Canada-US supply chain” and agreement to “reinforce our deeply interconnected and mutually beneficial economic relationship”. This iteration does provide Canada with some protection from a strict application of Buy America strictures.

The integrated nature of our economies makes it almost impossible for the US to apply a strict Buy American strategy. As Mike Wilson noted years ago, Canada and the US “make things together”. Attempting to identify and isolate hundreds of parts or inputs as imports from Canada within jointly manufactured products has proven very problematic for American regulators. Experience has shown that when Canadian imports are cheaper and more readily available than from US competitors, waivers have been applied to the NAFTA partner.

In practice, there is less than meets the eye regarding the threat of Buy American. That said, this file will require constant attention and rapid engagement with officials in the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to ensure Canadian commercial interests are protected.

Canada may have a greater challenge in obtaining satisfaction for its request for US help in extricating the two Michaels from Beijing’s custody.

That President Biden referred specifically and empathetically to their plight is a positive development and a tribute to insistent lobbying by Canada’s representatives. It does not solve the problem. The US has as conflicted a relationship with China as does Canada.

There have been rumours that the US Department of Justice has proposed a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) to Meng Wanzhou’s lawyers. If true, the offer of a DPA has so far not been accepted. It is not known whether the DPA was made conditional on the release of the two Michaels (although Biden’s rhetoric might suggest this), though Chinese Foreign Ministry officials did link the fates of Meng and the Michaels last June.

The Roadmap also contains a bullet noting that the leaders discussed ways to more closely align approaches to deal with China’s “coercive and unfair economic practices, national security challenges and human rights abuses”, while cooperating with China on climate change.

In the public portion of the meeting, President Biden underscored that, from the US perspective, the relationship aspires to be back to a civil, predictable and practical partnership. It is noteworthy how often the action verbs “align”, “work together”, “cooperate” and “coordinate” populate the document.

Canada will continue to have its conflicts with its southern neighbour, most notably in the economic sphere. But tone and temper are critical to discourse, negotiation and resolution.

We are off to a good start.

Michael Kergin served as Canada’s Ambassador to the United States from 2000 to 2005. He is currently international affairs strategic advisor at Bennett Jones LLP and a a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.