Enjoy this new normal of Canada-U.S. relations while it lasts

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History will not record the first official meeting between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden as “normal,” per se. Owing to the pandemic, the two met via video — there was no trip to Ottawa or Washington and it’s unclear when it will be considered safe again for the two leaders and their advisers to share a room.

But this first meeting with the new president was still perhaps more normal than Trudeau’s first, almost exactly four years ago, with the last president. 

The question now is, what Trudeau might be able to accomplish in this new normal? But then it’s also necessary to wonder how long this normal might last.

On the way to Washington in February 2017 for a highly anticipated meeting with Donald Trump, Trudeau had to strategize about how to approach the introductory handshake, owing to Trump’s tendency to try to physically and publicly dominate other men. The two leaders inaugurated a business council involving the president’s daughter and then Trudeau had to step gingerly around a reporter’s question about Trump’s thinly veiled ban on Muslim immigration.

At lunch, Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, left the room and did not return; after Trudeau had departed it would be announced that he had resigned because he gave the White House “incomplete information” about his pre-inauguration interactions with the Russian ambassador.

That meeting had been preceded by weeks of effort by senior officials in the Trudeau government to begin to manage the chaos that an unpredictable president might unleash, particularly as it pertained to NAFTA, the continental trade agreement that Trump had promised to rip up.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden held their first bilateral talks on Tuesday, committing to work together on climate change and building the economy back up after the pandemic. 2:36

By contrast, Biden’s election last fall did not feel like a national emergency. (In the official photo released from his first phone call with the president, Trudeau looked positively relieved.) And except for the fact that it was happening by video and all the participants were wearing masks, the first meeting between Trudeau and Biden seemed as straightforward and unperilous as these things are supposed to be.

Which is not to say that the Canada-U.S. relationship will be uneventful over the next four years. Already there has been the cancellation of Keystone XL and the threat of “Buy American” procurement policies. But such events are likely to remain with the traditional parameters of continental conflict that have tended to exist since the conclusion of the War of 1812.

There is also now a clearer chance for mutually beneficial collaboration.

Biden and his team don’t like to talk about the last guy, but Trudeau couldn’t resist noting at least one change during the public happy talk that preceded the private meeting.

“On tackling climate change — U.S. leadership has been sorely missed over the past years and I have to say, as we’re preparing the joint rollout and communique for this one, it’s nice when the Americans are not pulling out all references to climate change and instead adding them in,” the prime minister said.

Indeed, the word “climate” does not appear anywhere in the 1,100-word joint statement that the Prime Minister’s Office and the White House released at the conclusion of Trudeau’s visit in 2017. The “environment” received a single sentence.

Michael Kovrig, left, and Michael Spavor, right, were arrested by China in the wake of charges against Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, and remain detained. (The Canadian Press, The Associated Press)

Four years later, the word “climate” appears 15 times in the 2,500-word joint statement signed by Biden and Trudeau. There is a whole section under the heading “accelerating climate ambitions” and the two leaders agreed to launch a “high level climate ministerial” to co-ordinate and align policy.

In addition to reaping significantly less chaos and anxiety, Biden might blow a bit of wind into Trudeau’s political sails. The two leaders share a fondness for the idea of “building back better.” They both like to talk about “sustainable” and “inclusive” economic growth and they’re both committed to addressing inequality and racism.

Trudeau likely benefited politically at various points over the last four years from opportunities to contrast himself with Trump. But it probably wouldn’t hurt Trudeau now to have the American president talking about the same kinds of issues that he would like to be talking about.

But in real policy terms, the greatest impact might be on action to combat climate change. The “Roadmap for a Renewed U.S.-Canada Partnership” that was released after Tuesday’s meeting speaks of working together to boost battery production, cross-border electricity transmission, reducing methane emissions and co-ordinating transportation policy. More broadly, Biden’s presidency should accelerate momentum toward a cleaner economy and that might clear further political space for Trudeau to act.

If Trudeau needs to capitalize on anything in this Biden presidency, it might be that — though it would certainly also help if, as promised, Biden could also do something to bring Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor back from China.

But history’s attic is full of long-forgotten summit communiques. Twelve years ago, for instance, Stephen Harper and Barack Obama agreed to a “clean energy dialogue.” And there’s no guarantee that this road map will be precisely followed.

For one thing, the Trudeau government is still living day to day in a minority parliament and there’s no telling when the next election might come or who will be in power afterwards. So someone should probably ask Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole how many of those 2,500 words he agrees with.

But whatever the relief or excitement that Biden’s victory brought to Ottawa (and other foreign capitals), it also can’t be forgotten that he is still only currently entitled to be president until January 2025. And 74 million Americans still voted for Donald Trump last November. There is no guarantee that this return to normal will hold — if it’s not Trump himself who is the Republican candidate for president in 2024, it could easily be someone a lot like him.

Maybe it’s nice to have things back to normal, however abnormal everything is right now. But perhaps the lesson of the last four years is to enjoy this normal while it lasts.

Biden’s cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline is among the issues still facing Canada-U.S. relations. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)



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