The bully in the White House made the last four years especially fraught. When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau complained about US steel and aluminum sanctions imposed on spurious grounds that Canada was a national security threat, then-President Donald Trump blasted him as “very dishonest and weak.” Another time Trump asked the PM, “Didn’t you guys burn down the White House?” — referring to the War of 1812. For his part, Trudeau was alarmed about the ex-President’s undemocratic attempts to cling to power after he lost last year’s election.
There was palpable relief in Canada when Joe Biden — who will hold his first virtual bilateral summit with a foreign leader on Tuesday when he “meets” Trudeau, moved into the Oval Office. Biden, a man of courtesy and diplomatic decorum, was quick to get Trudeau on the phone and assure Canadians that friendships across the vast (and Covid-closed) border are back on track.
The last month however has shown that volatile compounds are still bubbling away in that lab downstairs. Biden’s abrupt cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline, reversing Trump’s reversal of an Obama administration move, was a stinging blow to Canada. And there is concern in the True North that Biden’s “buy America” executive orders are rooted in the same protectionism that motivated Trump’s trade myopia. The Trudeau government has also made little progress in securing the release of two Canadians in China, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, accused of spying after the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, on the basis of a US warrant, in Vancouver.
For all Biden’s flattery, there’s a sense that the US approach to Canada is still based on a narrow calculation of what is best for Washington. And Trudeau could do with more than a few platitudes from Biden. He’s under significant political pressure amid accusations that he failed to secure early vaccine stocks amid a punishing winter wave of disease.
The most successful US presidents forge foreign policy wins and global leadership coalitions because they identify the domestic constraints weighing on their counterparts. So watch for whether Biden sprinkles a little of his newly stocked political capital on the somewhat embattled PM.