Former Vice President Joe Biden is now the President-elect of the United States. After pledging to govern as a unifying President, one of Biden’s first orders of business will be to restore the international relationships that still-incumbent US President Donald Trump has strained.
The Canada-United States relationship may be the most salient example of this changing dynamic. The two states share the longest undefended border in the world and are each other’s largest trading partner. Culturally, politically, and economically, the two states are massively integrated. There is a long history of close ties between Canadian Prime Ministers and American Presidents: Brian Mulroney and George H.W. Bush bonded over their shared conservatism, while Barack Obama visited the House of Commons and shared jokes with Justin Trudeau.
However, since 2016, the Trump administration has pushed to renegotiate the NAFTA free trade arrangement (now USMCA) and slapped tariffs on Canadian exports on a dubious “national security” basis. In the eyes of many Canadian observers, Trump has torn away at the fabric of what has been termed a “special relationship” between the two countries.
Donald Trump is now a “lame duck” President, serving out the remainder of his term (albeit not without a fight). In this context, it is worthwhile to reflect back on how Justin Trudeau has managed the US-Canada relationship over the past four years. These lessons will likely be important should 2024 bring another Trump-like leader, or when Canada faces other populist allies.
Likely because of America’s recent change to populist and inflammatory messaging under Trump, it is no secret that Canadians have an overwhelmingly negative perception of him. According to a 338Canada/Léger poll published on October 1st asking Canadian voters how they would cast their hypothetical ballot in the US election, a “significant majority of Canadians (72 per cent) would support Democratic nominee Joe Biden,” and only 14 per cent would vote for Donald Trump, whilst another 14 per cent said they were undecided.
Despite the consistency of Canadian anti-Trump sentiment, Justin Trudeau has generally taken the approach of not “poking the bear.” While NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has personally called out the Trump administration’s actions (such as the separation of children from their parents at detention centres) and demanded that Trudeau speak out, the Prime Minister has almost always chosen not to comment. There have only been two substantial instances of Trudeau offending Trump. First, Trudeau was briefly caught gossiping about Trump with Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron at a 2019 NATO summit. Second, at the 2018 Charlevoix G7 conference, Trudeau asserted that despite their reputation for politeness, Canadians would not be pushed around in NAFTA negotiations. Still, when asked by the media to comment on the results of the US election, which candidate he favours, or almost any normative question about the Trump administration, Trudeau has refused to answer.
With Canada’s ability to rely on the United States challenged by the Trump administration, Canada shored up its other alliances. In 2017, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) was signed, removing 98 per cent of tariff barriers to trade between Canada and the EU. On October 29, 2020, Justin Trudeau met over video-conference with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel to discuss their mutual support for institutions such as the WHO, and affirm their commitment to maintaining liberal democracy across the world.
One of the Trump administration’s largest complaints with the global order has been the failure of most NATO-allied states to meet the ‘2 per cent of GDP’ target for defence spending that was agreed to by NATO’s defence ministers in 2006. While Canada continued to raise its military spending in 2020, it is still projected to spend just under 1.5 per cent of GDP on defence. This may be a target that Trudeau’s Liberals continue to aim for to placate a still-protectionist Biden administration. Biden’s campaign pledge to “Build Back Better” may indicate that while the era of devastating tariffs on Canadian exports is over, Biden plans to lean on the anti-free trade sentiment that Trump manifested throughout his administration.
It will be a relief to most Canadians that Trump has been defeated (pending some legal battles that may change results on the margins). Still, both Trump’s legacy and the need for Trudeau to tip-toe around America may have permanently reshaped the Canada-United States relationship. Congressional Republicans who benefited from Trump’s rise to power may have an interest in keeping “Trumpism” alive. Biden’s administration will likely warm in tone towards Canada, but America’s protectionist policies may continue. The lessons that Canada has learned from four years of Trump may cause lasting changes in Ottawa as well. With Canada no longer able to take American support for granted, Trudeau could pursue further economic and security cooperation with Europe.
Edited by Ryan Brown.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.