Keenan’s observations reflect a degree of pessimism that seems to pervade contemporary analyses:
“Has Biden been friendlier? Sure, in his photo-op platitudes. But has that made anything easier for Canada? It’s hard to see how.”
The article highlights a series of White House actions, as well as instances of inaction, that demonstrate President Biden’s apparent lack of concern for Canadian interests: cancelling the Keystone Pipeline; increasing tariffs on softwood lumber; proposing new Buy American provisions for electric car manufacturing; failing to offer support during Ottawa’s dispute with Michigan over the Line 5 Pipeline.
Biden gets credit for securing the release of the two Michaels from imprisonment in China, and a series of “productive meetings” have taken place among the leadership of the two countries, but Keenan still concludes that “Even when the faces were friendlier, a lot of 2021’s conversations were still very, very hard.”
It seems to me that such an assessment risks mistaking the forest for the trees.
My reading of the history of Canada-US relations suggests that the day-to-day bilateral differences Keenan has highlighted are all but inevitable, no matter the president.
Consider the mid-late 1980s when, under the leadership of Brian Mulroney and Ronald Reagan, relations were said to be at their peak.
It’s easy to forget that, during this period of “good will and true partnership,” a lengthy shakes and shingles dispute nearly derailed free trade; Reagan stonewalled Mulroney on efforts to curb acid rain and protest South African apartheid; and Canada refused to join Washington’s ballistic missile defence program.
Given the disparity in power between the two countries, not to mention America’s global responsibilities, the White House will never give Canadian issues the degree of attention that Ottawa feels they deserve.
It follows that if you want to evaluate state of the Canada-US relationship by the degree or intensity of these bilateral differences, you will always see room for significant improvement.
I think there is a bigger picture, though.
The United States has been the guarantor of a liberal-democratic world order that has served Canadian interests exceptionally well for close to 80 years.
Under President Trump, Washington disavowed such global responsibilities.
It withdrew from the Paris Agreement, undermining international momentum for collective action on climate change.
It planned to leave the World Health Organization, all but guaranteeing an increase in Beijing’s global influence in the midst of the most destructive pandemic in a century.
It allowed the World Trade Organization to wilt, opening the door yet further to an international system dominated by states that reject liberal rules and laws.
Perhaps most important, President Trump deliberately sowed division among the American people, leaving the state critically weakened and poorly positioned to play a constructive global role under any successor.
President Biden has, at the very least, slowed down the decline in America’s influence. However imperfectly, he has recommitted to NATO, and to pursuing multilateral solutions to international problems. He has also made a genuine effort – thus far unsuccessful – to bring Americans together.
If you believe, as I do, that one of the gravest threats to Canadian interests today is the dissolution of a US-led liberal international order, then it is hard to see President Biden’s ascent to power in anything but positive terms.
The real question, as we head into 2022, is not whether the lives of Canadian representatives in Washington have gotten easier since Biden took office, it’s whether his efforts to bring calm to America and restore US influence in the world will be sufficient to prevent the collapse of a system that is key to Canada’s long-term security and prosperity.
On Canada-US relations, see Stephen Azzi’s Reconcilable Differences and Robert Bothwell’s Your Country, My Country. The official Canadian government view can be found here. Canada’s current ambassador to the United States, Kirsten Hillman, is outstanding. She recently spoke with Politico about the state of Canada-US relations. You can find the interview here.
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