Biden Visit: What Happened

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Mr. Biden Came to Canada: Takeaways from the Visit

Colin Robertson

POLICY MAGAZINE March 30, 2023

As presidential visits go, the nearly 30 hours that Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden spent in Ottawa last week was as good as it gets. And while the optics were so exuberant and the mood so jubilant that it may actually go down in history as the “Fun Summit”, the substantive takeaways attest to both the real value and practical implications of bilateral harmony.

The stagecraft — the presence of the ‘Two Michaels’, the steelworker and Ukrainian refugee in the gallery of the House of Commons — lifted a page from presidential State of the Union addresses, while the gala dinner was done with Hollywood glitz with the help of star-spangled Canadians Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Eric McCormack and Hayden Christensen.

At the dinner, Biden toasted “to family, to Canada, and to the United States” the natural segue from his speech to Parliament, declaring that that “Americans and Canadians are two people, two countries … sharing one heart.”

The leaders’ 2700-word Joint Statement covers the waterfront, validating the hours and hours that teams of officials have spent fleshing out the detailed February 2021 Roadmap for a Renewed North American Partnership.

A presidential visit has a natural forcing function with the National Security Council’s inter-agency scrutiny and a similar process on the Canadian side led by the PMO and PCO. The top-level direction is the catalyst forcing deliverables and the dollars that go with them.

For Canada, the US process unlocked US approval of the extension to the Safe Third Country Agreement. It closes the loophole that last year saw 40,000 asylum seekers cross into Quebec from New York through Roxham Road, south of Montreal. In return, Canada will welcome 15,000 more refugees from the western hemisphere.

For Trudeau, it solves a problem with Quebec while the US gets another example of ‘legal pathways’ as it grapples with the migrant flow on its southern border. With an unprecedented 100 million displaced persons globally, including more than five million in the Americas, the challenge is how to implement safe and orderly migration.

Other border measures included more intelligence sharing, renewed focus on the U.S.-Canada Opioids Action Plan, and Canada joining the global coalition against synthetic drugs.

On trade, Biden told parliamentarians that the Inflation Reduction Act “explicitly… includes tax credits for electric vehicles assembled in Canada…recognizing how interconnected our auto industries are and our workers are.”

On defence and security, the two leaders maintained their ‘unwavering support for Ukraine for as long as it takes’ and this week’s budget the Trudeau government committed $CAD 2.45 billion in loans to the Ukrainian Government.

Clean energy collaboration got a boost with agreement to “harmonize charging standards and develop cross-border alternative-fuel corridors.” The new network of electric vehicle fast chargers will draw on USD $7.5 billion and CAD $1.2 billion. Both countries re-committed to achieving net-zero power grids by 2035.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and White House Special Presidential Coordinator for Global Infrastructure Amos Hochstein will lead an Energy Transformation Task Force to “advance our collective energy security.” It will report within a year on “renewable energy and electric vehicle supply chains, critical minerals and rare earths, grid integration and resilience, nuclear energy.”

One goal is to develop reliable North American nuclear fuel supply chains. Canada will join the Foundational Infrastructure for Responsible Use of Small Modular Reactor Technology program. An Advanced Technology Data and Security Dialogue will collaborate on shared priorities in quantum information science and technology.

Canadian companies are eligible for US Defense Production Act funding in “identifying, securing, and developing critical minerals extraction, processing, manufacturing, and recycling opportunities.” The 2023 federal budget provides funding incentives but, as panelists at this week’s CGAI annual Trade Policy Conference underlined, the real challenge in Canada is not funding but a regulatory process that is complex, confused, and takes forever.

Canadian companies will also be eligible for US funding “to advance packaging for semiconductors and printed circuit boards”. A cross-border packaging corridor is established beginning with the IBM facility in Bromont, Quebec.

On defence and security, the two leaders maintained their “unwavering support for Ukraine for as long as it takes” and this week’s budget the Trudeau government committed $CAD 2.45 billion in loans to the Ukrainian Government.

Biden said that in Canada, America could “find no better partner, no more reliable ally, no more steady friend.” It surprised those expecting the kind of gentle chiding parliamentarians received from Barack Obama in 2016 when he told them “NATO needs more Canada.

Spending just 1.27 precent of GDP on defence, Canada is far from meeting the 2024 NATO goal of 2 percent set in 2014.

The US wanted Canada to lead a peace operations mission in Haiti. Trudeau declined, saying that Haitians themselves had to take the lead and instead pledged CAD $100 million to support Haitian police. Chief of Defence Staff Wayne Eyre had earlier explained that Canadian Armed Forces capacity is strained coping with myriad operational challenges including recruitment, retainment and culture change. In February, Canada deployed two naval ships to patrol off Port-au-Prince as part of a multimillion-dollar assistance package announced at the Nassau CARICOM Summit.

NORAD modernization got more money: CAD $6.96 billion for two next generation Over-the-Horizon Radar systems to complement CAD $7.3 billion for northern forward operating locations for the 88 new F-35 aircraft costing CAD $19 billion.  here was no reference to new submarines or future naval bases in the Arctic. Presumably these, and more on missile defence, will be included in the anticipated, if delayed, update, announced in Budget 2022, to the 2017 defence strategy ‘Strong, Secure and Engaged’.

Leaders reconfirmed collaboration on cybersecurity and the resiliency of critical infrastructure, especially pipelines and power grids.

Trudeau specifically identified China, Russia and Iran as perpetrators of foreign interference and subterfuge as both leaders committed to defend democracies. At this week’s second Summit for Democracy the US pledged to make ‘technology work for, and not against, democracy.’ Participating by video, Trudeau announced over $CAD 50 million for initiatives that promote and protect democracy at home and abroad.

The Great Lakes, the world’s largest freshwater eco-system, are an example of over a century of joint Canada-US environmental stewardship. They will benefit from USD $1 billion and CAD $420 million over the next decade for cleanup, restoration and conservation.

Ongoing renegotiations of the 1964 Columbia River Treaty get a boost, with negotiators instructed to reach agreement in principle by this summer on mitigating water pollution in the Elk-Kootenai watershed that feeds into Idaho, Montana and British Columbia.

In another example of our deep diplomatic collaboration, Canada joins the US-initiated Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity and intends to join the companion Indo-Pacific Economic Framework that will complement the US-Canada Indo-Pacific Dialogue.

Despite the March weather, the Bidens’ visit was a love-in from wheels down to wheels up.

As President Biden pointed out, the American embrace reflects the numbers in a new Gallup poll showing Canada as America’s favourite country, with a rating of 88 percent favorability. Meanwhile, more than half of Canadians, per an EKOS poll published March 24th, now describe the U.S.-Canada relationship as good — a twofold increase since the final months of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Making the case for keeping Canada within the US economic perimeter must continue. This requires an active business and labour outreach as well as engagement at all levels of government, in what must be a permanent campaign.

But Canadians cannot be complacent. While Americans may like us, protectionism and the appeal of “Buy American” policies are a permanent presence in our relationship.

For Canada, the Joint Statement, effectively updating the 2021 Roadmap, offers a lot of potential opportunity, most immediately around the clean energy task force.

Examining ‘green steel and aluminum’ presumably opens the door to Canada joining the EU-US arrangement. The task force should also look at a carbon border adjustment tax. The EU is well down this road. Given the deep integration of the Canadian and US economies a joint approach makes sense.

Our European allies and Japan need new energy supplies in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. President Biden recently approved drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic. Freeland should press the US for a fresh look at Keystone and Line 5 and, within Canada, at supplying LNG from our East coast.

President Biden has embraced industrial policy and tied it to the seismic shift to green energy that comes replete with major tax credits and incentives contained in the IRA, CHIPs and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. It will require us to rethink our trade policy. Where it was once based on freer trade and reducing protectionism, we now have to shift to one recognizing greater government intervention. This means incorporating climate and labour standards with border taxes and tariffs as well as industrial incentives including subsidies and tax credits.

Making the case for keeping Canada within the US economic perimeter must continue. This requires an active business and labour outreach as well as engagement at all levels of government, in what must be a permanent campaign.

While we seek alignment with the US, we need to work with like-minded partners – Australia, Korea, Japan, Mexico, the EU – in a collective approach to disciplines on subsidies and border measures, rather than just swallow what the US decides.

For middle powers like Canada, the rules-based system is how we level the playing field against the arbitrary weight of great powers.

That this order is imperiled was again demonstrated last week in Moscow, where Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin issued their Joint Statement “deepening the comprehensive strategic partnership” and accusing the West of  “damaging acts of hegemony, domination and bullying.” Bidding farewell to Putin, Xi delivered a propaganda message meant more for Western audiences than for his interlocutor:“Right now there are changes – the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years – and we are the ones driving these changes together.”

As the US president has said repeatedly, the threat to democracy from authoritarians is the challenge of our time.

Last week, Biden told Canadian parliamentarians that when Xi Jinping asked him to define America in one word, he responded: “Possibilities…Nothing is beyond our capacity…And I could’ve said the same thing if he asked about Canada.”

The capacities that provide capabilities require continuing investments. It’s how we earned our place at the table setting up our rules-based order in the aftermath of the Second World War.

In recent years, successive Canadian governments have skimped and pared on investments in diplomacy; defence, including peace operations; development; and in funding for the resettlement of the displaced. We have work to do if we are to be included at the table updating the world order for a new century.

Policy Contributing Writer Colin Robertson, a former career diplomat who served extensively in the United States, is a Fellow and Senior Adviser with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Ottawa.