U.S. will counter foreign interference at home and among allies, one of its top diplomats says

Brian Nichols, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, says the U.S. has its own experience of foreign interference and will do "everything in our power" to safeguard North American democracies.

Assistant secretary of state Brian Nichols expressed optimism around co-operation on migration, defence

A man speaks at a podium while another man, wearing a mask, listens in the background.
Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols speaks during a press conference at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Oct. 1, 2021. Nichols praised Canada-U.S. co-operation on issues like defence, migration and the situation in Haiti. (Joseph Odelyn/The Associated Press)

As U.S. President Joe Biden's visit to Ottawa wound down, one of the United States' top diplomats touted co-operation with Canada on a variety of key global issues — and vowed to help defend Canadian democracy against foreign interference.

Brian Nichols, who serves as assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, maintained in an interview on CBC's The House airing Saturday the sunny attitude that Biden brought to his events around Parliament Hill on Friday.

Leaders from Canada and the U.S. expressed mutual admiration over the course of the whirlwind official visit, and skirted a series of issues that might have provoked controversy.

The U.S., for example, had previously pushed Canada to take on a leadership role in a potential intervention force in Haiti. But Canada expressed reluctance, citing a dearth of military capacity and a lack of political consensus among Haitians themselves.

LISTEN | High-ranking U.S. diplomat on Canada-U.S. challenges, cooperation:
U.S. President Joe Biden was in Ottawa this week for his first official in-person visit to Canada since winning the presidency more than two years ago. Brian Nichols, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, was in the room where it happened and tells Catherine Cullen about the priorities the two leaders discussed.

But Nichols, who travelled to Haiti late last year, told host Catherine Cullen that the $100 million in aid Canada announced Friday instead was "an important step," given the United States was also providing support.

"Those are important steps. They're not sufficient steps, but they're important steps and we need to keep working together and we need to ensure that Haitians are talking to each other and coming together around a path forward," Nichols said.

Asked directly whether Canada had let the United States down over Haiti, Biden told reporters Friday: "I'm not disappointed." 

"The biggest thing we can do, and it's going to take time, is to increase the prospect of police departments in Haiti having the capacity to deal with the problems they are faced with," the president said.

Canada to bring in 15,000 more migrants

For the United States, the situation in Haiti is also just one part of a wider migration crisis that is most acute at its southern border. But for Canada, that crisis takes the form of tens of thousands of people crossing into this country via unofficial ports of entry like Roxham Road in Quebec.

The two countries struck a deal this week that has effectively closed Roxham Road and others like it, giving Canadian authorities the ability to turn migrants back.

Opposition parties like the Conservatives and Bloc Québécois had called for Roxham Road's closure, and provincial Quebec leaders argued the province no longer had the capacity to handle migrants.

Workers remove current warning signs at the irregular border at Roxham Road from New York into Canada on Friday, March 24, 2023.
Workers remove current warning signs at the irregular border crossing at Roxham Road from New York into Canada on Friday. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

"We couldn't simply shut down Roxham Road and hope that everything would resolve itself because we would have had problems," Trudeau said Friday. "The border is very long, people would have looked for other places to cross."

Nichols said the two countries had agreed to co-operate on encouraging legal pathways for migration, and Canada's commitment to bring in 15,000 more refugees from this area was a symbol of that partnership.

"I believe that encouraging people to take legal pathways is vital. Our co-operation on migration with Canada has been quite impressive," he said.

Aleks Dughman Manzur of the Canadian Council for Refugees told The House he was concerned that the changes would lead to migrants now being returned to the U.S. and potentially to their home countries, where they might face "arbitrary detentions, potential return to persecution and possibly death."

China's influence hangs over visit

Canadian politicians have been grappling in recent weeks with allegations that China sought to sway the results of two recent elections, and Nichols reaffirmed U.S. support for Canada.

"We in the United States have experienced people trying to interfere in our election from outside. We know how that feels, and we will do everything in our power to defend our democracy and that of our allies," he said.

"Autocrats around the world will seek to use illicit tools to influence democracies in a negative way. We have to be prepared."

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin walk together in the Kremlin in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with China's President Xi Jinping at the Kremlin in Moscow on Tuesday. (Pavel Byrkin/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images)

As Biden was preparing to jet to Ottawa for his meeting with Trudeau, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping were wrapping up their own summit. Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a global risk consulting firm, said that meeting was by far the more important.

"The geopolitical environment has gotten worse," he told Cullen. "The single most important bilateral meeting of the year to date — in fact, since the [Ukraine] war started — was Xi Jinping spending three days in Moscow."

Bremmer said opposition to China was a unifying force for Canada and the U.S.

LISTEN | Ian Bremmer discusses consequences of Biden-Trudeau meeting: 
Biden’s visit to Ottawa is taking place in a wider geopolitical context, with Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin also meeting in person to discuss the war in Ukraine, and ongoing allegations of foreign interference in Canada. Eurasia Group president Ian Bremmer, an expert on geopolitics and conflict, joins The House to break down what the Trudeau-Biden summit might mean for the world.

"It actually provides some gravity to the relationship. It makes near-shoring much more obvious and important."

But Bremmer warned that the current toxicity of the relationship between the U.S. and China, the world's two most powerful countries, risked spilling over from areas of adversity or competition to areas where co-operation was needed, like climate change.

He said economic interdependence between the two powers put a "floor" on the relationship, but that was at risk.

"We are testing that floor. We're jumping on that floor. The politics are horrible."


Christian Paas-Lang covers federal politics for CBC News in Ottawa as an associate producer with The House and a digital writer with CBC Politics. You can reach him at christian.paas-lang@cbc.ca.

With files from Catherine Cullen and Jennifer Chevalier