On a December night almost four years ago, in his waning days as U.S. vice-president, Joe Biden offered some advice to the new kid on the block.
“The world is going to spend a lot of time looking to you, Mr. Prime Minister, as we see more and more challenges to the liberal international order than any time since the end of World War II,” Biden told Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a 2016 state dinner in Ottawa.
The shockwaves from Donald Trump’s victory in a presidential election weeks earlier could still be felt. Biden, grieving a beloved son’s death from brain cancer, had opted against a White House bid that year and, according to his telling, would not settle on running against Trump in 2020 for another eight months.
Biden, now 77, may have thought he was passing a torch that evening with soothing words about the resiliency of both Americans and Canadians to grind their way through uncertain times.
“There is no quit in Canada,” he said. “There is no quit in America.”
But with the Democratic stalwart’s projected victory over Trump, declared Saturday morning after days of uncertainty as states counted mail-in ballots, the eyes of the world are now on Biden. The torch is in his hands.
Major TV networks and The Associated Press declared Biden surpassed the magic number of 270 electoral college votes after winning the key swing state of Pennsylvania. At the time of the call, Biden was also leading in Nevada, Arizona, and Georgia.
Days earlier, Trump made baseless accusations of voter fraud to attempt to cast doubt on the credibility of the vote. He has pledged to fight the result in the courts.
Trudeau, who said Friday he would wait until the outcome of the race was “sufficiently clear” before offering public remarks, released a statement Saturday congratulating Biden and vice-president-elect Kamala Harris. The prime minister said he looked forward to working with their administration and the U.S. Congress to tackle “the world’s greatest challenges together.”
“Canada and the United States enjoy an extraordinary relationship – one that is unique on the world stage. Our shared geography, common interests, deep personal connections, and strong economic ties make us close friends, partners, and allies,” Trudeau said.
“We will further build on this foundation as we continue to keep our people safe and healthy from the impacts of the global COVID-19 pandemic, and work to advance peace and inclusion, economic prosperity, and climate action around the world.”
Experts interviewed in advance of the vote say that whatever policy differences the incoming U.S. president may have with Trudeau, a change in U.S. leadership will mean Canada can expect more stability and predictability when it comes to its most vital international relationship.
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Bruce Heyman, who served as Barack Obama’s ambassador to Canada from 2014 to 2017, was at that dinner hosted by the Canadian government four years ago.
“I can personally tell you that I envision that a President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will have an amazing relationship and work very closely together,” Heyman told HuffPost Canada.
The unique connection between the United States and Canada encompasses not only trade and defence, but also trust, something that has been forged over decades of mutual respect, the former diplomat said.
“We have to go back now and regain the trust that was lost or damaged during the Trump administration. That’s going to take work, but that work will start Day 1 with the Biden administration,” he said.
Heyman said a Biden White House would be more aligned “values-wise” with Canadians, seeking collaboration to fight climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic that has already claimed more than 230,000 American lives, and to resolve issues that inevitably surface when it comes to trade or the shared border.
“He’ll listen. He’ll take into consideration the Canadian perspective,” Heyman said of Biden. “He will obviously represent the United States as president… but he won’t do it in a way that the last administration has done it… about America only and America first. It’s about understanding that America is stronger based on what alliances we have and the partnerships we have.”
It wasn’t always obvious Trump saw Canada as a partner, and not just because of the insults he lobbed at the prime minister over the past four years. At points, Trump blasted Trudeau as “dishonest,” “weak,” and “two-faced.”
After reopening the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and forcing Canada to the negotiating table for what would eventually become the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), Trump hit Canada with punishing tariffs of 25 per cent on imports of Canadian steel and 10 per cent on aluminum in 2018.
Canada hit back with $16.6 billion in retaliatory import tariffs targeting U.S. products in swing states and other politically meaningful jurisdictions, such as orange juice from Florida and bourbon from Kentucky, the home state of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Trump’s administration justified those tariffs on national security grounds, a gambit Trudeau called an “insulting” and offensive way to treat a loyal neighbour and an ally who fought with America in international conflicts from the First World War and the Second World War to Afghanistan.
Though the levies were lifted about a year later en route to the ratification of the new NAFTA, Trump announced in August he would reimpose aluminum tariffs on Canada, again under the guise of security concerns. He reversed course the next month, just hours before the Canadian government was set to unveil its countermeasures.
“The fact that the president weaponized tariffs on the basis of national security and pointed that weapon directly at Canada was shameful; it was disturbing; it was upsetting,” Heyman said. “While we, again, may have differences, we work to solve those differences across the table, respectfully, together, as opposed to how Donald Trump did it.”
Emily Wills, an associate professor of political studies at the University of Ottawa, says that a lot of what Biden projected during his campaign was a “return to normalcy” — at least as much as things can be amid a global health crisis — in its dealings both at home and abroad.
“I think there will be more comfort in a Biden presidency in the sense that… Canadians will feel like we have a partner on the other side of the border, as opposed to somebody we need to be wary of,” she said.
But it won’t all be roses for Canada either.
Biden has said he will cancel Trump’s approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which is expected to carry 830,000 barrels of oil a day from Alberta to Nebraska. It’s a project that is fully supported by the Liberals, who were shut out of Alberta in the last election and face pressure to do more to ease Western alienation.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said last month that halting the pipeline would “undermine the single most important trade relationship that the United States has in the world.” At a press conference last Friday, Trudeau noted that he has been a strong supporter of Keystone for seven years and pledged to keep championing the project.
Biden’s opposition to the pipeline, which was rejected by Obama, could be a potential conflict area, Wills said. Yet she said the move comes as a consequence both of Biden’s desire to appeal to Democrats who want to move faster on climate change, and his focus on domestic energy sources and reducing carbon emissions to meet the goal of carbon-free electricity in the United States by 2035.
“He’s not going to be able to pull that off unless he engages in active pivoting of the economy away from fossil fuels,” she said.
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Heyman sees the Keystone issue as another difference that Biden and Trudeau can deal with respectfully, not unlike when Obama was in office. “I hope that no individual component of our relationship, as important as it is to any individual constituency… is a threat (to) sour a larger relationship,” he said.
Though not seen as a protectionist like Trump, Biden has also touted “Buy American” policies and U.S. manufacturing to ensure, according to his platform, “the future is made in America by all of America’s workers.” He will also need to contend with the more left-leaning figures in his own party, including popular Sen. Bernie Sanders, who are skeptical of free trade.
Still, Wills told HuffPost that Biden backs the USMCA, and she said she doesn’t expect his strong support of U.S. manufacturing to represent a huge change or challenge for Canada.
Yet she does think the incoming president will be eager to see restrictions lifted at the Canada-U.S. border, which has been closed to non-essential travel since March to slow the spread of COVID-19. Those restrictions were extended last month until at least Nov. 21.
“The border is not going to reopen… either until Canada gets as bad as the U.S. or the U.S. gets less disastrous in terms of coronavirus. And let’s hope it’s the latter and not the former,” Wills said.
In his platform on immigration, Biden mentions Canada twice. In the first instance, he pledges to “convene a regional meeting of leaders, including from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Canada” to address factors driving migration and “propose a regional resettlement solution.” He also promises to work with Canada and Mexico as partners, not adversaries. “Instead of bullying our friends, Biden will build partnerships grounded in respect to pursue our shared interests and enhance our shared capabilities and information,” it reads.
Some have interpreted that language to mean Biden will want to renegotiate the Safe Third Country Agreement, a pact in place between Canada and the United States since 2004. Under the agreement, both countries recognize each other as safe places for asylum seekers. Both countries reject most refugee claims made at land border crossings on the basis that people should instead seek refuge in the first country in which they arrive.
However, in what has been called a loophole, the agreement applies only at official border points. Thousands of people have crossed into Canada from the United States irregularly over several years in order to make claims.
Although a Federal Court ruling in July struck down the agreement on constitutional grounds while leaving it in place until mid-January, the federal government is appealing the decision. Last week, the Federal Court of Appeal agreed to keep the agreement in place until the legal dispute is resolved.
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Wills told HuffPost the United States is always going to be more focused on its southern border and isn’t convinced the Safe Third Country Agreement will be a high priority for Biden. But she expects he will want to work with Canada to end “the PR disaster at the northern border” in order to make a legitimate claim about having improved on Trump’s immigration policies.
A central part of Biden’s foreign policy pitch has been about rejoining multilateral bodies and rebuilding alliances. The incoming president has said he will rejoin the Paris climate accord, an international agreement the United States formally exited on Nov. 4, and seek out a collaborative approach to global problems.
Biden will ‘try to return the U.S.’s place on the world stage to more normal times’
Matthew Lebo, the chair of Western University’s political science department, says he thinks Biden will “try to return the U.S.’s place on the world stage to more normal times,” not unlike how Obama moved to mend fences with other countries after he took over from George W. Bush in 2009.
Part of that will mean re-establishing clearly who the country’s friends and adversaries are after four years of Trump’s taking the United States in some confusing directions. “The friends are not North Korea and Russia; they’re Canada and Britain and Germany, and NATO countries,” Lebo told HuffPost.
The COVID-19 pandemic also presents an opportunity for Biden to renew the U.S. leadership role internationally, Lebo said. The Trump administration moved to withdraw from the World Health Organization in the thick of the pandemic.
“In different times, with different presidents, the U.S. might have been leading the charge in boosting the World Health Organization… to be the world leader in helping countries combat coronavirus,” Lebo said.
But Lebo predicts that Biden will have learned something key from his eight years as Obama’s number two: that “the clock starts ticking really, really quickly” on midterm elections that could stymie his legislative agenda.
A Democratic majority in the Senate and House of Representatives was central to passing the Affordable Care Act in 2009, which extended health insurance coverage to millions of Americans. But by November 2010, Democrats had lost the House to Republicans in what Obama called a “shellacking.” Republicans also regained the majority in the Senate in 2014.
Democrats are projected to keep their majority in the House, but it is not yet clear if they will wrestle control of the Senate away from Republicans.
Lebo said there are many domestic priorities that Biden could feel compelled to move on quickly, including the potential replacement of the Affordable Care Act if it is struck down by a Supreme Court that now has a conservative majority. He’ll also move to raise taxes on Americans earning more than $400,000 a year and could seek to advance voting rights and judicial reform, Lebo said.
Christopher Sands, Canada Institute director at Washington-based think tank, The Wilson Center, told HuffPost that Biden will need to satisfy “impatient factions” in his party, “whether it’s environmentalists or the social justice community or LGBTQ or the feminist movement,” who want to see action on the things they care about.
“They waited eight years for action under Obama, who said all the right things but didn’t deliver very much at the end of the day… and now they’ve got Biden,” he said. “They were more or less forced to accept someone they were lukewarm on. And his roots aren’t on the left of the party, they’re in the middle.”
With it seeming unlikely at this point that Biden would run for a second term, “everyone will be impatiently pushing him off the centre and further to the left,” Sands said.
Wills said it’s entirely possible that Biden won’t be giving a lot of attention to issues with Canada because his dance card will be full managing coronavirus relief and making progress on issues of police violence and racial injustice that were key to his campaign.
“So he may be intensely domestically focused for six months to a year,” she said. “Everything may go into a holding pattern in terms of international relations.”
Some may hope Biden’s election will mark a shift in tensions between the United States and China that at times left Canada stuck in the middle. Beijing is widely believed to have detained two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, since December 2018 as retribution for Canadian authorities arresting Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver after a U.S. extradition request. She is accused of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran.
Trump told Reuters nearly two years ago he would “certainly intervene” in Meng’s case if it would help secure a trade deal with China. His Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has publicly blasted espionage charges against Kovrig and Spavor as “completely groundless” and accused China of “hostage-taking for political gains.”
Things won’t just go back to the way things were before Trump, ex-diplomat says
Wills says that while Biden’s language on the Asian superpower has often shared common traits with Trump’s, his approach will be less aggressive and less unilateral. “Biden is saying that his policy on trade in particular, but also on other issues related to China, is going to be conducted together with allies,” she said, adding that Canada would be at the table even if the U.S. is the loudest voice.
Lebo also expects the U.S.-China relationship to be less volatile under Biden, which is “probably good for Canada and for Canadian markets,” he said. “I would guess Canada has an easier time when the U.S. is predictable with China.”
But it might be a stretch to think Biden’s assuming the presidency will make a difference in Canada’s attempts to secure the release of the so-called “two Michaels” from China, Wills said. A Biden administration may be more interested in helping to negotiate for their release, she said, but “that’s a lot of speculation and it really depends on how much negotiating room China is willing to give.”
It’s important for Canadians to know that things won’t just go back to where they were before Trump took over the most important job in the world, Heyman says.
“We have to now take into account where the world is today and the challenges we face. Mainly, this pandemic, which is the first thing that we have to work on together,” he said.
But Heyman believes the personal relationship between Biden and Trudeau matters, and so too do the experiences Kamala Harris had in Canada. Though the incoming vice-president’s Canadian connections have been overblown in some ways, Harris attended high school in Montreal.
During that state dinner in Ottawa, back when it seemed his time in politics was ending, Biden mentioned that Trudeau’s father, Pierre Elliott, once spoke with him about losing his first wife and daughter in a car accident in 1973. Biden noted his deceased wife, Neilia Hunter, had family in Canada, and joked about how his sons once dreamed of becoming Mounties.
He likened the United States to Canada’s overbearing big brother, one that could be, at times, a pain in the neck. “I get it,” he said at the time. “But we’re more like family even than allies.”
He ended his remarks with the words: “Vive le Canada… because we need you very, very badly.”
It might have just been the kind of thing a skilled politician says, a bit of gracious flattery for one’s hosts. But looking back, it all just seemed so normal.
With files from Zi-Ann Lum
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