Biden aiming to mend US-Canada ties after tensions of Trump era

Virtual meeting with Justin Trudeau will kick off ‘an entire week’s worth of Canada’ with range of policies to foster cooperation on Covid-19 and the climate crisis

Andrew Feinberg
Washington DC
Tuesday 23 February 2021 11:46
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Joe Biden is hoping his first meeting with Justin Trudeau will clear the way for strengthening US-Canada ties that were strongly tested under Donald Trump.

The US president, his Canadian counterpart, and their respective cabinets will come together virtually on Tuesday for the first bilateral head of government meeting of Mr Biden's young presidency, restoring a practice abandoned by his predecessor. But while the meeting itself represents yet another return to normality under Mr Biden, neither the agenda nor the circumstances will be traditional.

The expected outcome of the talks will not be “a joint statement that's going to reside on a website, but rather a roadmap to reinvigorate US-Canada collaboration," said a senior administration official told The Independent late on Monday.

"It is essentially a tasking to our cabinet ... on everything from Covid-19, to the economy, to economic cooperation, to an ambitious partnership on climate, to renewing our cooperation with Canada to build global alliances".

The official added a "cross-cutting theme" running through all discussions will be "advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout our policies".

Although the two leaders will not meet in person due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the official said the unprecedented virtual meeting will be structured to "recreate the substance, depth, and breadth of the bilateral relationship in the virtual space" while still "creating an environment for them to really roll up their sleeves and talk to these issues in detail".

Tuesday's programme is comprised of two separate sessions.

First, Mr Biden – accompanied by vice-president Kamala Harris, secretary of state Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan – will meet Mr Trudeau and their Canadian counterparts. They will then be joined by several members of Mr Biden's cabinet – including the secretaries of homeland security, defence, and transportation, as well as National Economic Council director Brian Deese and White House Covid-19 response coordinator Jeffrey Zients – for a wide-ranging expanded meeting.

"We're trying to innovate in the virtual space to make sure we're creating an environment for them to really roll up their sleeves and talk to these issues in detail as the president likes to do," he said.

Tuesday's events will also kick off what the US official called "an entire week's worth of Canada", with policy rollouts from agencies across the entire American government including a "high-level ministerial on climate" that he said would "serve to align our policies and approaches" and "help create jobs and reduce inequality while enhancing adaptation and resilience to climate impacts".

Mr Biden's choice of Mr Trudeau for his first foreign head of government meeting returns Canada to the priority status it enjoyed under five of his six most recent predecessors, but he may have more work to do in order to mend a relationship that Mr Trump pushed to the limit.

Donald Trump says Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is 'two-faced'

Upon taking office in 2017, Mr Trump snubbed Mr Trudeau by granting his first head-of-government meeting to UK prime minister Theresa May, a gesture meant to telegraph US support for Brexit ahead of exit negotiations with Brussels. Things only went downhill from there, with Mr Trump igniting multiple trade skirmishes by unilaterally imposing tariffs on Canadian products with rarely-used emergency powers, and Mr Trudeau imposing reciprocal measures.

Mr Trudeau's criticism of the Trump tariff policies led his counterpart to make a hasty exit from the Canada-hosted Group of Seven summit in 2018. After withdrawing from a joint statement on trade, the US president took to Twitter to attack the Canadian leader as “dishonest" and "weak".

In later missives sent from his Singapore talks with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, Mr Trump aired further grievances about Canada's goods trade surplus with the US and the defence budgets of Nato members.

Since the end of Mr Trump’s presidency, his successor has recommitted the US to its' international alliances, and the majority of the tariffs have been rescinded on both sides. And while tensions may have been frayed on both sides of the 49th Parallel, the senior administration official said they were hopeful that the two leaders could restore the unique relationship between Washington and Ottawa.

"Nearly every priority of the Biden administration is one where we have value alignment and ... a space for collaboration with Canada," he said. "We share one of the strongest and deepest friendships between any two countries in the world, defined by history and geography. It's built on common values, strong ties between our people, and the longest international border at peace".

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