Justin Trudeau has a problem in Washington. That’s why Joe Biden doesn’t listen
WASHINGTON – When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited the US capital for the first time this week since the election of President Joe Biden, two notable coincidences in time highlighted Canada’s position with its greatest and closest ally. You could say they sketch the “state of the relationship” – which is an indication of the first chance.
The Canadian American Business Council, led by former diplomat Scotty Greenwood, hosts an annual State of the Relationship gala dinner in Washington that is as big a feature as there is for those working on cross-border issues. This year’s gala – in a posh hotel with a breathtaking view of the White House through the open windows – was scheduled for November 17, long before it was announced that the Prime Minister would be attending a summit at the White House the next day.
That, of course, meant that Trudeau and key members of his cabinet would attend the celebrations – the prime minister’s speech suddenly became the main event. “Canada and the United States are best friends,” said Trudeau in closing, creating huge laughter from the corporate executives and government officials I sat with.
The feeling may be standard for a politician – “This is one of the easiest relationships a American president can have, and one of the best,” Biden said the next day – but it was also vividly felt in a room full of people work daily on cross-border economic, cultural and political issues. The formal presentations were attended by dozens of mayors and governors, as well as members of parliament and congress, who testified how popular the relationship between the two countries was.
That was in stark contrast to the other coincidence of the visit. Trudeau’s agenda in town was led by concerns about an electric vehicle subsidy included in Biden’s business plan that would only apply to US-made, union-made vehicles. Trudeau said time and again during his visit that Canadian companies and jobs that had been seamlessly integrated into a US-based continental auto sector for decades were threatened.
So it was a small slap in the face that the House of Representatives passed this measure along with the rest of the economic package on Friday, just hours after Trudeau left town.
You might add another coincidence: on Wednesday, when Trudeau spoke to Congress and showed up at the gala, Biden was at a Michigan auto plant bragging about the upcoming electric vehicle subsidy and the new green American jobs it would create.
Trudeau’s key issue was not mentioned in the background information and advance notice from the White House for the summit. And while the Prime Minister’s Office prominently mentioned it in its reports on the Biden and Trudeau meeting, it made no mention of the White House summary of their one-on-one meeting.
This is not so much a reflection of malice as it is of forgetfulness. Like Biden, House Spokeswoman Nancy Pelosi greeted Trudeau personally and said it was an honor to meet with him just two days before the move he had opposed there was approved.
For the Democrats, the vehicle subsidy is a small, but politically very popular part of a huge domestic spending package that is at the center of Biden’s agenda. Getting this package through their caucus was like tending cats – very excited cats who don’t like each other. Domestically, their election prospects are disastrous, even if they find themselves in a fight for US democracy with the Trumpian forces who orchestrated the January 6th Capitol Riot. In foreign policy, they are waging an existential struggle with China for global supremacy and a constant political obsession with the flow of migrants on its southern border. And there is this pandemic that you may have heard of.
American officials know their old trusted best friend has some concerns about this vehicle subsidy. But on their minds, it’s not on the list of emergencies they’re trying to juggle – it barely made headlines during the U.S. summit.
At first glance, it doesn’t seem like all that big of a deal for an old friend to formulate his protectionist measures to include his buddy Canada in the bubble, as it has for automobile manufacturing for decades. It is an optimization that the US has done many times and that is based on the trade agreements it has signed. It just complicates a political slogan – one wielded at a politically complicated time.
This is where the cross-border relationships that are so evident at the Business Council gala could be crucial. Scotty Greenwood, the host of this event, keeps telling me the importance of things like the Canada-US Partnership Roadmap signed earlier this year or the announcements of working groups or agendas for future discussions that emerged from meetings like this week’s emerge summit. In these less high-profile follow-up discussions, the details are worked out and perhaps the strength of longstanding relationships can be harnessed – outside of the news cycle.
The state of the relationship illustrated by these two temporal coincidences is that compassion for Canadians is strong in the United States, but Canada’s problems are barely a footnote on the American agenda. The challenge for Canada is to find a way to capitalize on friendship so as not to get swamped by the headlines.