Canada, A Key U.S. Ally, Noticeably Absent from Key U.S. Foreign Policy Developments

When Joe Biden won the 2020 U.S. presidential election promising to restore alliances in U.S. foreign policy, sighs of relief could be heard across much of Canada.

Four years of neglect and abuse from the Trump administration left U.S.-Canada relations strained. The Trump administratoin imposed arbitrary tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum with little explanation. His administration also launched the countries into turbulent negotiations over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Tension between Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mr. Trump were palpable, with Mr. Trump lobbing insults at his counterpart by calling him “very dishonest and weak” at a G-7 summit in 2018 and “two-faced” at a NATO summit in 2019.

The Ties Run Deep

A key part of Mr. Biden’s attempt to restore American alliances began with Canada. And why not? The United States and its northern neighbor share a deep history, tied together by “a similar colonial history, immigrant population, defense network, economic supply chains, and culture.” The two countries share close military intelligence relationships, as both  are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), a “bi-national United States and Canadian organization charged with the missions of aerospace warning and aerospace control for North America.”

The United States and Canada have a deep intelligence sharing relationship as well, as both are members of the Five Eyes alliance. As a result, the Canadian prime minister is among the first foreign visits, if not the first, an American president makes upon taking office. While the COVID-19 pandemic precluded such a visit early into Mr. Biden’s tenure, the two leaders held the first official visit in a virtual setting. “The United States has no closer friend than Canada. That’s why you were my first call as president, my first bilateral meeting,” Mr. Biden praised his Canadian counterpart.

Recommitting to a Key Relationship

Mr. Biden reiterated the importance of the U.S.-Canadian alliance. So, it seems strange that Mr. Biden has not yet traveled to Canada after nearly two years in office. It’s not that the two leaders have not met. Aside from the virtual meeting in early 2021, the U.S. president and Canadian prime minister met on the sidelines of major international summits. Mr. Trudeau even traveled to Washington, D.C. in November 2021 to meet with his American and Mexican counterparts. Mr. Trudeau made an appearance at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles over the summer where he met with Mr. Biden, agreeing that Mr. Biden would visit Canada “in the coming months.” However, that trip never materialized, and there is still no sign that Mr. Biden is planning to visit one of the United States’ key allies and closest neighbors any time soon.

It’s Not Us, It is You?

Canadian officials downplay any speculation that the lack of a visit is intended as a slight, attributing it to factors outside both leaders’ control. However, that does not erase the fact that the Canadians often feel discounted by their more powerful neighbor to the south. Canadians could interpret Mr. Biden’s failure to visit Canada as confirmation that the relationship is not nearly as important to the United States as it is to Canada since the Biden administration left Canada out of several significant foreign policy developments in his nearly two years in office.

No Subs For You

In September 2021, the United States and the United Kingdom announced a plan to share highly sensitive nuclear submarine technology with Australia, blindsiding key U.S. allies like France. However, the new deal caught Canada off-guard as well. At the time, Mr. Trudeau dismissed the deal as simply the sharing of nuclear submarine technology with Australia. When asked by reporters why Canada was not included, he pointed to the fact that Canada is “not currently or any time soon in the market” for nuclear submarines. As part of refuting any speculation that the relationship is in danger, Mr. Trudeau reminded journalists that Canada and the United States share deep intelligence and military ties. While Canada is a key American intelligence and military ally, Canada does not seem to factor into some of the United States’ recent military and intelligence announcements.

Not Part of the Indo-Pacific Club?

Over the past nearly two years, the Biden administration has not factored Canada in when developing its Indo-Pacific strategy. This is particularly important because Mr. Biden came into office with plans to make countering China as the central facet of U.S. foreign policy. As part of this pivot, when Mr. Biden landed in Tokyo on his first trip to Asia earlier this year, he announced a new trade arrangement with a dozen other Indo-Pacific countries, called the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). Suspiciously missing from the list, however, was Canada.

Around the same time, Canada was gearing up to release its own Indo-Pacific strategy – one expected to largely mirror that of the United States. It seems as though Canada is banking on joining the IPEF as part of its strategy to the region, with Canada’s foreign minister by stating, “I am pleased to announce that Canada will seek membership into the Indo-Pacific Economic Forum.” The United States and Canada’s economic relationship is vast, sharing one of the largest trading relationships in the world. In 2021, the bilateral trade of goods in services totaled more than $1 trillion. Yet, as Eric Miller, the president of the Rideau Potomac Strategy Group, notes, the United States does not think about Canada as an Indo-Pacific partner, preferring to think of them in the context of North America.

The Biggest Impediment

As Mr. Biden came to office with the intent to improve the United States’ relationships with its key allis, including Canada, the Keystone XL pipeline presented a significant challenge On his first day in office, Mr. Biden revoked the permit for the pipeline, a blow to his Canadian counterpart. Mr. Biden, like his Democratic predecessor, decided to cancel the pipeline, worth $8 billion and which would have brought crude from the oil sands fields in Alberta, a province in Canada, to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries, once again. As Politico reported, the “decision came despite pleas to Biden from multiple Canadian government officials.”

Mr. Trudeau supports the pipeline “as part of an effort to balance his priority to fight climate change with his support for Canada’s energy industry in Alberta and in other western provinces.” Having the leader of his closest ally cancel such an important pipeline is a major blow to Alberta’s economy, and the larger Canadian economy. Mr. Trudeau, while voicing his disappointment of Mr. Biden’s decision, did not take a big stand. The American cancellation of the pipeline, representing one of Mr. Trudeau’s key foreign and domestic policy priorities, is yet another example of the United States not taking Canada seriously enough.

Consult with Canada

The Biden administration came into office with a promise of restoring America’s key alliances after four years of neglect and abuse by its predecessor. Canada was high up on that list, as Mr. Biden hosted Mr. Trudeau for his first diplomatic meeting. However, some of Mr. Biden’s key foreign policy objectives – particularly in the Indo-Pacific region – left Canada out in the cold. This is not how the United States should treat one of its closest allies and trading partners. The Biden administration would do well to consult more with Canadian officials, especially on matters that involve both countries.  

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