Opinion

How Canada can leverage Biden's agenda as part of government relations reset

By being creative in identifying solutions to our shared interests and leveraging opportunities through multiple levels of government, we'll ultimately advance Canadian interests, writes Colin Robertson.

Government can put focus on opportunities in new presidential agenda rather than on old irritants

President-elect Joe Biden, left, will be sworn in Jan. 20 in Washington. He has set himself a formidable to-do list that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, should be mindful of when the leaders hold their first meeting after the inauguration, writes former diplomat Colin Robertson. (Carolyn Kaster/The Associated Press, Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion by Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat and now vice-president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Joe Biden's return to the White House, this time as president, gives Canada a chance to reset what has been a tempestuous ride with Donald Trump.

Biden has set himself a formidable to-do list: the pandemic; economic recovery; climate; racial justice; restoring democracy.

For Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's first meeting with Biden after his inauguration, the government needs to look closely at that agenda. Rather than focusing on the perennial irritants, it should identify where Canada can offer help and solutions, because we share many of these challenges.

Biden's immediate priority is vaccinating Americans so the country can recover socially and economically from COVID-19, and Trudeau has the same focus. The multilateral response to the pandemic could have been much more effective and would have benefited all if our two nations had collaborated from the outset. But it's not too late to start.

Some of our best practices will also have application in hard-pressed developing nations, and what better demonstration that "America is back" and "ready to lead the world," as Biden put it, than to work closer with Canada and share what we have jointly learned about dealing with this virus.

President-elect Joe Biden has promised to make rejoining the Paris agreement on climate change one of his priorities. (Matt Slocum/The Associated Press)

On climate, if Biden rejoins the Paris Agreement as promised, Canada and the U.S. will be back in sync in terms of emission-reduction targets. Together, we need to look to November's Glasgow conference and what we want to accomplish there, as it will be both a stock-taking of Paris commitments and a setting of new goals.

With this in mind, Trudeau should offer to lead a North American approach to carbon pricing, including instituting a border tax on imports from those nations that don't meet their climate commitments.

Closer collaboration would also involve identifying best practices and areas for shared research, including initiatives at the state and provincial level. If Mexico were asked to join in, it would go a long way to reviving North American collaboration in other areas as well, like immigration and addressing some of the troubles involving Mexico's Central American neighbours.

On the issue of mutual defence, unlike Trump, Biden has indicated he believes in collective security and that he embraces NATO. Meanwhile, our binational NORAD agreement needs renewal, and an Arctic strategy is the missing piece in Canada's defence policy.

American presidents from Ronald Reagan on have told us that if Canada claims sovereignty over the North, then we must exercise it. If we dither, the U.S. will set the parameters for us. To avoid this, we need to quickly take the lead in proposing a joint strategy. Reinvesting in our Arctic would also spark a northern economic renaissance, as well as secure the critical minerals vital to advanced manufacturing.

Joining Biden's proposed club of democracies also makes sense, especially if it focuses on human rights, development goals, setting digital standards, and strengthening nascent democracies. Likewise, standing up to the authoritarians, especially China, is overdue.

China's a la carte approach to multilateralism means scooping up the benefits of globalization while ignoring the rules and conventions of global institutions. As a result, China will likely dominate the Biden administration's foreign and security policy deliberations. As part of those deliberations, Canada needs President Biden to promise that any deal lifting the U.S. extradition request for Meng Wanzhou will include freeing the two Michaels – Canadians Kovrig and Spavor, detained in China since December 2018.

With Canada having about 300,000 expatriates at risk in Hong Kong, we should also offer to co-lead, with Britain, a G7 approach to sustaining the liberties that China guaranteed to Hong Kong.

Michael Spavor, left, and former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig, right, have been in Chinese custody since December 2018 after being charged with spying. (The Associated Press/International Crisis Group/The Canadian Press)

And we must carefully strategize confrontations involving the U.S. itself.

In his first conversation with the president-elect on Nov. 9 after the U.S. election, Prime Minister Trudeau pressed him on the Keystone XL pipeline that Biden has repeatedly pledged to rescind.

The arguments supporting Keystone XL are unchanged: as one of 70 pipelines that crisscross our border, it safely supplements American energy independence with a secure and reliable supply of oil. And innovations by oilsands producers have significantly reduced the industry's environmental footprint. Biden already knows all this. But could he really be expected to go back on his promise to environmentalists, a key constituency in his fragile Democratic government?

Leading with your chin is a bad idea, and Canada needs to be pragmatic.

Indeed, reports Sunday indicated that Biden plans to rescind permission for the pipeline in his first day in office. If that turns out to be the case, Keystone XL is an important issue that requires ongoing attention through different levels of government, but we also need to be realistic in our expectations. The Harper government made Keystone XL the litmus test of its relationship with the Obama administration and it was a mistake, frustrating progress on other issues.

Meanwhile, a pipeline we should be vigorously defending is the 65-year-old Line 5 that Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer wants closed. This pipeline supplies about 45 per cent of the crude oil used by Ontario and Quebec.

Biden’s decision on Keystone XL a political headache, economic blow for Canada

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Joe Biden’s apparent plan to swifty stop construction of the Keystone XL pipeline may not have been a surprise in political circles, but it will certainly be a headache for Justin Trudeau’s government and be an economic blow for Alberta. 2:20

Let's also be realistic about Buy American, which is integral to Biden's trillion-dollar Made in America and Build Back Better initiatives.

It's equally unlikely that he'll back away from these plans, but we should remember how Canada finessed former president Barack Obama's big build economic recovery initiative. With state-level procurement outside of the NAFTA deal, then-prime minister Stephen Harper turned to the Council of the Federation. Led by premiers Brad Wall and Jean Charest, they negotiated a reciprocity agreement with their governor counterparts that gave Canadians a piece of the pie.

Keystone XL and Buy America remind us that our close, deep and profitable U.S. trade relationship requires a calibrated approach involving different levels of government. Several of the provinces have representation in Washington. Quebec has long had offices throughout the U.S., for example, and provincial efforts complement those of our Embassy and consulates; indeed on issues like Keystone they effectively lead. The Canadian tendency to push it all to the top-level leaders is self-defeating.

When presidents meet with prime ministers, they expect top-table discussions befitting G7 and G20 leaders. Effective relations with the new Biden administration will mean dealing with problems at the appropriate level – including cabinet officers, premiers and governors, and our ambassadors. This obliges us to invest in our diplomatic service so that we can bring their intelligence-gathering to the negotiating table.

The new U.S. administration wants to reset relationships with its friends and allies. By seizing this opportunity and being creative in identifying solutions to our shared interests, as well as leveraging opportunities through multiple levels of government, we ultimately advance Canadian interests.

A welcome mat at the White House magnifies Canada's influence with the rest of the world.


About the Author

Colin Robertson is a former Canadian diplomat and is vice president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

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