It may not yet be a Reagan/Mulroney-level friendship, but it’s clear that Canada’s prime minister and America’s new president are on very good terms with one another.
For his part, I’m sure Justin Trudeau was most delighted with Joe Biden’s victory in the U.S. presidential election. The previous president was rather volatile and unpredictable, and not all that interested in traditional U.S. alliances. Not that Trudeau was perfect in managing that relationship, but it would have been a challenge for any Canadian prime minister (and not that we had the moral high ground on every issue, mind you).
Ideally, the leaders of Canada and the United States would have a positive working relationship — one that stems from a jointly-held belief in the importance of the relationship between the two countries. It’s probably fair to say that things are now trending in that direction.
But before Canadians get too caught up in the exhilaration of this burgeoning new friendship, it’s fair to ask what’s in it for us. In other words, the prospect of a new “bromance” is much less exciting if it doesn’t change the policy status quo.
The positive vibes stemming from this past week’s virtual summit between the two leaders weren’t enough to obscure the fact that, for now, not much is likely to change. Sure, the two leaders are very much aligned on climate policy, but that’s not really going to change much here in Canada since we already know where the current government stands on such matters.
And yes, it seems likely that the new president is prepared to take a more active role in securing the release of the two Michaels, although it’s not exactly clear what Biden will do or could do. For the time being, the two Michaels remain prisoners of the Chinese government.
On three big issues, however, Biden doesn’t seem prepared to relent. Should that remain the case, it will be difficult for Trudeau to sell us on the idea that his kinship with Biden is paying dividends.
For one, the Keystone XL pipeline project appears to be just as dead as the day last month when Biden revoked its presidential permit. Killing the project was a real economic blow to Canada and it was a rather inauspicious start to a presidency that will ostensibly rebuild the Canada-U.S. relationship.
We don’t know to what extent Trudeau has pressed this issue, but it’s clear that Biden is not budging. It would be unfair to blame Trudeau for the project’s demise, but this certainly undercuts the notion that taking meaningful action on climate policy would make it easier for a president like Joe Biden to approve a project like Keystone XL.
Another issue, one that Trudeau has certainly pressed Biden on, is the president’s support of a “Buy American” policy for U.S. government spending. The Trudeau government has been pushing for additional exemptions for Canada, but guarantees along those lines have not been forthcoming.
Another area where protectionist sentiment is prevailing over Biden’s enthusiasm for bilateralism is on the matter of vaccines. The new president is sticking with the “America First” vaccine policy that he inherited from his predecessor, meaning that vaccines manufactured in the U.S. will stay in the U.S.
The Trudeau government arguably bears some responsibility for Canada’s recent vaccines woes, but it would certainly help our situation if we had access to vaccines produced closer to home. Pfizer, for example, has a plant in Kalamazoo, Michigan but our Pfizer vaccine supply is instead coming from their plan in Belgium.
Ultimately, the U.S president — as is the case for Canada’s prime minister — is accountable to the voters in his country and we shouldn’t be surprised when domestic politics takes priority, even when it comes to close friends and allies.
Biden may have more room to maneuver on the latter two issues in the weeks and months ahead. It’s possible that he may even want to do his friend a favour or two, given that Canadians are likely headed to the polls at some point this year.
But at this point, other than kind words and big smiles, the Trudeau-Biden friendship has yet to deliver.