WASHINGTON, D.C. — If Donald Trump has anything in common with Canada, it might be this: a shared craving for the attention of the American people that at times can border on the pathological.
Both could go through withdrawal symptoms in the new year.
Whatever else history will say about the outgoing president, he had a knack for scratching that uniquely Canadian itch for acknowledgment from south of the border, even if it often left a painful welt.
“South Park” fans might call it the “blame Canada” doctrine: Trump branded the country a national-security threat, an existential danger to U.S. farmers and manufacturers, and a place unworthy of U.S.-made pandemic protection.
He decried “two-faced” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a “very dishonest and weak” leader, and admitted to disliking former foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland, who he reportedly said “hates America.”
After Canada’s walk-on part in the U.S. reality-TV zeitgeist, the Joe Biden era will be boring by comparison — not such a bad thing, said Roy Norton, a former senior diplomat who did two stints at the Canadian Embassy in the 1990s and 2000s.
“In Washington, I used to find that not being on the radar screen was usually preferable to being on the radar screen,” said Norton, now a diplomat-in-residence at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ont.
“When you are, you’re the target, and people are gunning for you. Certainly, Trump exercised that.”
Canada-U.S. expert Eric Miller opted for a different metaphor.
“Some people are thinking that this is all going to have been like ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ where you’re going to wake up and it was all a scary dream,” said Miller, president of the Rideau Potomac Strategy Group in Washington.
“But in reality, the world has changed very significantly over the last four years, and so a good part of what the Biden administration is going to be focused on is dealing with the immediate problem.”
Pulling the U.S. out of its pandemic-induced economic tailspin will be Job 1, which means Canadian priorities may have to take a back seat, particularly if there’s a perception they run counter to those of the United States.
Lingering disdain for globalization, distrust of multilateral trade deals and a strong protectionist sentiment — more than 74 million Americans voted for Trump, after all — could prove quite liberating for Canada, Miller suggested.
“One political wag put it years ago that Canada sometimes acts like a teenage girl moping around their room, asking, ‘When is he going to call me?’ but that attitude has changed,” he said.
“Canada will, I think, be more willing to forge its own course and to be less dependent on thinking about the U.S. paying attention to us as a validation of how well or not well we are doing as a nation in the world.”
Regardless of what most observers expect to be a more diplomatic and dignified approach to foreign relations, a host of irritants will persist. But the relationship between the two countries is more than a dossier of sticking points, said Norton — and Trump’s departure offers an opportunity to revisit some of the bigger, broader themes that used to define it.
“We do ourselves a disservice by thinking narrowly about the Canada-U.S. relationship in terms of the bilateral relationship — Keystone XL and softwood and Section 232 tariffs and so on and so forth,” he said.
“What’s more important to us … is international rules. It’s a functioning multilateral system, it’s the United States, and other superpowers and would-be superpowers, acceding to the standards of behaviour set by the world, collectively.”
That would change the backdrop, moving high-level narratives away from Twitter and cable news and back to the vaulted ceilings, boardroom tables and corridors of power in places like the United Nations and the World Trade Organization.
But the agenda will remain familiar.
Biden’s campaign has promised to reverse Trump’s approval of Keystone XL, the controversial $7-billion cross-border pipeline expansion that critics say will make it impossible to meet emissions-reduction targets.
He’s laid out a detailed and comprehensive Buy American strategy for the country’s economic recovery, including a White House office dedicated to making sure U.S. workers and companies are first in line to reap the rewards.
The Biden administration will also inherit a feud between U.S. and Canadian dairy producers with all the hallmarks of a trade fight that could rival the longevity and stubbornness of the softwood lumber dispute.
And he has nominated cabinet members whose track records suggest they won’t back down from fights.
John Kerry, Biden’s hand-picked envoy on climate change, was secretary of state in 2015 when he successfully urged president Barack Obama to reject Keystone XL.
Tom Vilsack, Biden’s proposed new agriculture secretary, cheered U.S. trade ambassador Robert Lighthizer’s decision earlier this month to formally accuse Canada of denying U.S. dairy producers rightful access to markets north of the border.
And Katherine Tai, a trade-talks veteran nominated as Lighthizer’s successor, is widely seen as a hard-nosed negotiator whose main role will be to enforce existing trade agreements and Buy American rules.
The U.S. filed the first enforcement action of the USMCA era earlier this month over access to Canadian dairy markets, followed within days by a similar Canadian complaint over American tariffs on softwood exports.
Navigating those shoals will fall to Biden’s team — well aware that while the Democrats won the election, notwithstanding Trump’s persistent efforts to subvert the result, putting American interests first will be vital to bridging the country’s gaping political and cultural divide.
Whether Canada gets caught in the middle of that Buy American tug of war will be a burning question next year.
“It’s a nice bumper sticker — everybody knows that — but it presents problems,” Charlie Dent, a former Pennsylvania congressman, told a recent Wilson Center panel about Biden’s protectionist promise.
“I think, for a variety of reasons, that the Biden administration will behave in a much more multilateral manner, that they will not embrace what was the ‘America First’ agenda.”