The Neighbors

*This post is the first in a series on what America’s allies can expect from the Biden administration. This post explores the United States’ relationship with its neighbors, Canada and Mexico.*

One of the central themes driving President Joe Biden’s foreign policy is that he will work to “repair America’s alliances.” During his first official foreign policy speech given at the State Department on February 4, Biden emphatically stated, “America’s alliances are our greatest asset.” In fact, in his first few weeks in office, President Biden has reached out to the United States’ key allies around the world, highlighting his commitment to proving to its allies that they can rely on the United States. This outreach effort began with the United States’ neighbors: Canada and Mexico.

Up North

The United States and Canada have longed enjoyed a very close ties, enjoying an extensive commercial relationship, totaling approximately $700 billion each year and maintaining mutual security commitments and close intelligence-sharing operations.

Politically and socially, the countries enjoy a shared history and values. The sheer proximity of the two countries allows for close relations: The two countries share a border that spans more than 5,000 miles, and that border is largely undefended. One could argue that the United States has no better friend in the world than Canada.

Conversely, under the Trump administration, relations with Canada were more strained. Former President Trump imposed arbitrary tariffs on Canadian aluminum and steel exports in 2018 for national security reasons, angering the Canadian government. Trump hurled a series of insults toward Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, calling him “very dishonest and weak” at the 2018 G-7 summit. Trump also threatened to rip up the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), accusing Canada of taking advantage of the United States and threatening to leave Canada out of any new deal.

While it will likely take time to reestablish the trust lost during the last administration, the relationship will likely return to the friendly, cooperative relations between the United States and Canada. Biden and Trudeau are far more ideologically aligned, holding similar positions on issues like climate change, democracy and human rights, international institutions, and social justice. Indeed, Trudeau was Biden’s first phone call to a foreign leader, underscoring the importance of the relationship.  

There is one early area of tension: Biden signed an Executive Order that revoked the permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline, which was seen as a “boon for Canada’s in industry.” Trudeau expressed his disappointment at the move, which Biden acknowledged, but noted that he would not allow the cancellation of the pipeline to put pressure on the relationship.

It’s not always going to be a perfect alignment with the United States,” Trudeau acknowledged. “That’s the case with any given president,” he continued, further noting that “…we’re in a situation where we are much more aligned on values and focus. I am very much looking forward to working with President Biden.” In short, we can expect the relationship between the United States and Canada to return back to its more traditional, friendly state.

Down South

Overall relations between the United States and Mexico have been amiable. However, there were numerous territorial skirmishes after Mexico gained independence in 1810, and relations hit another low point during World War I when Germany asked Mexico to join the war against the United States for the return of some of its territory.

In more recent years, relations between the two countries have been much closer, cemented by the signing of NAFTA in the mid-1990s. Now close trader partners, the United States and Mexico work together to address crime, migration, and counternarcotics. The United States and Mexico share strong economic, social, cultural, and historical ties. Nevertheless, throughout the relationship, there has been a power imbalance skewed toward the United States.

During his campaign and into his presidency, Trump frequently criticized Mexico. He referred to Mexicans as “rapists” and accused Mexico of sending criminals and drugs to the U.S. During a trip to Mexico in 2016, he incensed his hosts by exclaiming that he was going to build a “great wall,” that Mexico would fund. He later knocked NAFTA as “the worst deal in history.” In 2019, in an effort to pressure Mexico into reducing illegal migration flowing from Mexico, Trump said he would slap punitive tariffs, to which Mexico’s leftist populist president sent National Guard troops to Mexico’s southern border.

When examining the usually cordial but sometimes strained relationship, one could observe that Mexico has played the more subordinate role and that President Andrews Manuel Lopez Obrador was willing to do whatever was needed to satisfy the United States, no matter the cost to Mexico. As Maureen Meyer, the Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights at the Washington Office on Latin America pointed out, “AMLO’s [Lopez Obrador] priority was to maintain the relationship with the U.S., and he was willing to accept [those] costs in Mexico.”

Biden, however, has signaled his plans to establish a positive relationship with Mexico. “I think the administration, and particularly President Biden, believes in letting bygones be bygones,” observed former Mexican ambassador to the U.S., Arturo Sarukhan. “He wants to build a constructive relationship going forward.” The United States-Mexico relationship has been long been imbalanced, with the United States serving as the more dominant partner. However, as evidenced by how carefully he is approaching the relationship, Biden essentially wants to hit the reset button on the relationship.

Conclusion

President Biden has placed recalibrating the United States’ relationships with its allies at the center of his foreign policy. This starts with those geographically closest the United States: Canada and Mexico. With Canada, Biden aims to return the relationship back to traditional friendly, cooperative state that the two countries have long enjoyed. With Mexico, he seeks to basically reset the relationship, treating Mexico as more of a partner. One thing is certain: Biden understands the importance of good relations with the United States’ neighbors.