John Ibbitson – Globe and Mail
November 6, 2020
Most Canadians welcome Joe Biden’s likely victory over Donald Trump in the race for the U.S. presidency. A Léger poll last month found that 72 per cent of the 1,500 Canadians surveyed would vote for Mr. Biden if they could; according to an Ipsos poll in the days before this week’s election, seven in 10 Canadians believe that a Biden White House will be good for Canada. And Mr. Biden knows Canada well from his time as a senator and U.S. vice-president; Kamala Harris, his VP, lived in Montreal as a teenager.
But a wounded America appears to have lost the will to lead, crushed in confidence by quagmires abroad and cleavages at home – and this is dark news for our country.
“The United States is tired of its mantle of global leadership,” says Stephanie Carvin, a professor of international affairs at Carleton University who was previously a national security analyst in the federal government.
Four years ago, the United States elected a president who closed borders, suppressed immigration, raised tariffs, broke agreements and berated foreign leaders. “And if the American public can do it once, they can do it again,” says David Jacobson, who was U.S. ambassador to Canada during president Barack Obama’s first term. “They can do it four years from now, or eight years from now,” he says. “And it has caused Canadians to have a less favourable view of my country and those who live in it.”
Canada found itself alone in the world during the years of Donald Trump, whose administration was indifferent and at times hostile to Canadian interests. We had to learn to fend for ourselves in an increasingly hostile world. Under Mr. Biden, the tone may change – but America’s new isolationism will remain.
“We can no longer count on a special relationship with the United States,” says Derek Burney, who was Canadian ambassador to the U.S. when Brian Mulroney was prime minister.
Certainly, a Biden victory will be a tonic to Canada-U.S. relations. For Canada, “most things get better” under a Biden presidency, says Roy Norton, who as Canada’s consul-general in Detroit helped conclude the negotiations for a new bridge between Windsor and Detroit. Under Mr. Trump, “we saw a United States we barely recognized.” At the very least, he believes, under Mr. Biden, “the bludgeoning of allies is over.”
With Mr. Biden as president, “what will change overnight is that Canada can expect more predictable patterns of bilateral diplomacy and day-to-day exchanges,” predicts Stéfanie von Hlatky, a political scientist who is director of the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen’s University.
The two countries will be able to make joint progress in combatting global warming, a priority for Mr. Biden. A more serious approach to combatting the COVID-19 pandemic might make it possible to reopen the Canada-U.S. border, which was closed except for economically essential travel, sooner rather than later in 2021.
In the best of all possible worlds, Prof. von Hlatky believes, Canada would work with the U.S. to restore the ties with traditional allies in Europe and the Pacific that Mr. Trump damaged or neglected.
But there will be challenges in Canada-U.S. relations under a Biden administration as well. Democrats traditionally have been more protectionist than Republicans, and Mr. Biden has promised a robust Buy American strategy for government procurement that could freeze out Canadian suppliers. Mr. Biden has vowed to revoke the presidential permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, throwing another wrench into Alberta’s efforts to get its oil to foreign markets.
And the election result was distressingly close. Donald Trump’s policies and rhetoric were basically “validated” by more than four Americans in 10, Mr. Norton says. For almost half of America, “his approach worked. Those Americans, far from being bothered by it, are chuffed by the notion that Donald Trump routinely showed disrespect for the rest of the world.” Regardless of who won the election, that attitude has been deeply embedded within American society.
This may be the most lasting result of the past four years: a United States that is deeply, dangerously divided.
“The level of rhetoric and violent discourse across America, but particularly in our border states, is disconcerting,” says Monique Smith, a former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister who served as Ontario’s representative in Washington under former premier Kathleen Wynne. And while she is hopeful that a Biden administration will “calm the waters,” Ms. Smith is convinced that “if you look at America, things are permanently changed.”
The U.S. is likely to remain more isolationist under a Biden presidency than it was before Mr. Trump. “The average American looks at the follies” in Iraq and Afghanistan, “looks at the deficit, looks at failing American health care, the poor pandemic response, issues surrounding poverty and it’s hard to imagine any president seeing international affairs as a place to spend capital right now,” Prof. Carvin says.
These traumas are making Canadians more isolationist as well – at least, in their approach to the U.S. Polls show that a large majority of Canadians want the border between Canada and the U.S. to remain closed, despite the effects of this unprecedented move on the economy and on Canadians who spend their winters in the U.S.
The Trump presidency forced Justin Trudeau’s government onto its back foot. In the early months of Mr. Trump’s administration, Mr. Trudeau had to devote every available resource to renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Mr. Trump had vowed to scuttle in the 2016 election.
But Canada has also been a leader in providing an international antidote to this new U.S. approach. The Canadian government worked with Japan, Australia and other states to rescue the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement after Mr. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal, and Mr. Trudeau collaborated closely with European leaders, especially German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, to preserve the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, whose worth Mr. Trump questioned. Canada also took the lead in creating the Ottawa Group, a collection of like-minded countries that seek to preserve and reform the World Trade Organization, which the Trump administration sought to undermine, and the government continues to press other countries to condemn China for arbitrarily detaining two Canadian citizens in retaliation for the arrest of a Huawei executive after a U.S. extradition request.
Regardless of what happens during a Biden administration, Canada cannot continue to believe that it can still simply shelter under an American umbrella. “One cannot assume we are going to go back to where we were,” says Senator Peter Boehm, who spent many years as a diplomat involved in Canada-U.S. relations, and was the sherpa for the Group of Seven meeting in Charlevoix.
The world going forward will not be defined by hub-and-spoke relations between the U.S. and its allies. At best, it will be replaced by a latticework of relationships in which the U.S. remains vital but less dominant.
At worst, order will decay as authoritarians in Beijing, Moscow, Tehran and elsewhere flex their muscles in an international order with no United States to police the peace.
With the U.S. so distracted and inward-looking, how would it react if, for example, China sought to exert greater domination over Taiwan?
Yet this bleak assessment may underestimate American resilience. The soft power of the U.S.’s culture and its economy remain substantially intact. American governments at the federal and state level may have failed to contain the spread of the coronavirus, or even willfully ignored its dangers, but American companies are among the leaders in the race for the vaccine.
Silicon Valley tech remains unsurpassed. Netflix bestrides the planet. The U.S. dollar remains, at least for now, the global reserve currency. And when Americans rose up against the wanton killing by a police officer of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter protests spanned the globe, from Germany to South Korea. What other country could prompt such a response?
Despite all the depredation of the past four years, the U.S. remains “the indispensable country,” Mr. Jacobson says. “And if we act in a responsible way and American leadership comes to the fore, not only will it be good for the United States, but the world will be a safer place. And there is probably no country that will benefit more from that than Canada.”
Mr. Boehm never ceases to be amazed at the resilience of the American people. “They have some deep, deep fissures and wounds,” he acknowledges. But “I think they’re going to rebalance the great democracy that they are. And we, as their neighbour, have to encourage them – not to be compliant, but to engage.”
A more self-reliant Canada may, in the end, be a better friend and partner to the U.S. and to its allies around the world. But then, we also have no other choice.