Managing Canada-US Relations

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1,000 Points of Contact: Managing Change in Our Relationship with the US

By Colin Robertson

POLICY MAGAZINE February 27, 2024

Whatever the outcome of the US election in November, Canada needs to be ready for a changing relationship with a changing America.

Ramping up our trade advocacy campaign in a Team Canada effort is a first step. But the playbook extolling our mutually beneficial economic relationship, which worked for us in the NAFTA renegotiations, won’t be enough this time around.

A broader effort is necessary: well organized, well financed and more strategic, with an equal focus on security as well as trade. It starts by looking at the US agenda and identifying where we can also advance our own interests. Our narrative must blend both, impressing upon Americans that Canada is a vital and necessary partner in making America (and Canada) prosperous and secure.

We need to go beyond incrementalism by being bold and innovative in managing our most vital relationship.

The prime minister should convene the premiers for a First Ministers Meeting on the Canada-US Relationship. It should include political opposition leaders, business and labor, and be closed-door to avoid political grandstanding. Participants need to agree on an action plan focusing on three broad baskets: trade, investment and the border; defence and security; climate, energy and the environment. The goal should be to achieve consensus on the following questions:

  • What do we want the premiers and legislators to achieve in their various regional annual governors-and-premiers and bilateral legislative conferences? The relationships between legislators, and especially those of governors and premiers, are essential to get across our message of mutually beneficial interdependence whether talking about the economy, energy and environment, or defence and security.
  • How should Canadian unions reach out to their American counterparts, especially with brethren like the Steelworkers who lead ‘Buy American’ efforts? Recognizing the mutual benefits of our longstanding supply chain arrangements, our objective is to continually ensure there is no discrimination against that which is made in, or serviced from, Canada.
  • What are the cross-border business communities’ priorities for joint action? Their efforts have been key since the negotiation of freer trade in the 1980s.
  • What research do we need from our think tanks and scholars to help better understand American priorities and the implications of increasingly defensive and protectionist American economic policies? The model should be the landmark Macdonald Commission on the economy which, within three years in the early 1980s, produced over 70 research volumes and provided the intellectual capital for free trade and regulatory reforms.
  • What are the tactical implementation responsibilities and deliverables for each participant?

The border deserves special attention. We should create a binational Canada-US Border Authority.  Drawing inspiration from our NORAD experience, a binational Canada-US border authority could be a bilateral-security game-changer. Get the northern border service right and it could eventually have application for the US southern border. The danger of our passivity is that a future US administration will apply whatever draconian measures designed for their Mexican border to the northern border.

The pandemic underlined the vulnerabilities of supply chains. Geopolitical tension is accelerating the shift to friend- and ally-shoring. We are committed to joint cross-border energy and semi-conductor corridors and the development and processing of our strategic minerals. The Future Borders Coalition has developed a series of recommendations designed to expedite the flow of people and goods across our shared border.

This multi-stakeholder summit should also launch the specific ‘Team Canada’ effort necessary to ready ourselves for the 2026 review of our continental trade arrangement.

We have a serious productivity problem and much of it has to do with insufficient competition in key economic sectors. We should use the next two years to open up to competition in key sectors of our economy where oligopolies exist.

Premiers should tackle and eliminate interprovincial trade barriers; the unfinished economic business of Confederation.

It’s also time to abandon our supply management system, which protects a declining domestic market but prevents Canadian dairy producers from exporting to the growing global marketplace. This is Canadian trade policy gone awry. Our grains, beef and pork industries are globally competitive; so could be our dairy industry and our world-class cheeses.

With these measures, we would go into the 2026 review with a fully open market available to any company based in a country with whom we have a fully functioning trade agreement. This would immediately put multiple key sectors in the US on our side in pushing the administration not to disrupt our deal.

Our planning coming out of the summit needs to be explicit with precise implementation directed through a secretariat, or war room, with full-time, dedicated expertise and talent. It should be bipartisan and include political and communications professionals used to running successful campaigns and branding and promotional programs. The campaign needs a “hearts and minds” component, building on the considerable legacy of good will between the two countries.

It also needs to be brutally practical, including bilateral channels from industry group to industry group. Recreate, based on their success in our Canada-US FTA and NAFTA experiences, the International Trade Advisory Committee and sectoral advisory groups. Take a page from the Smart Border experience and create a website tracking progress. It serves to motivate both ministers and mandarins.

When we go to the Americans with ideas and solutions rather than complaints, we significantly raise the likelihood of getting what we want. Our enduring binational institutions – the International Joint Commission managing our shared waterways and NORAD ensuring our continental defence – prove we can level the playing field to mutual benefit and satisfaction.

We must also move on defence and security. We live in a world of conflict and increasing insecurity. We need to pay higher premiums for both collective security and greater self-reliance. With defence spending now at approximately 1.4 percent of GDP we fail to meet the NATO two percent commitment and the funding necessary for NORAD modernization.

When we go to the Americans with ideas and solutions rather than complaints, we significantly raise the likelihood of getting what we want.

We became so accustomed to a world structured by American power that we forget what a more insular US would mean for Canada and the alliance. The ‘forever wars’ in Iraq and Afghanistan have had a chilling effect with Americans now less willing, as John F. Kennedy famously declared in his inaugural address, to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

More spending on defence and security is necessary, especially if we are to exercise sovereignty in our North, an action that would also align with US objectives. This must be a cross-party priority.

Our Forces senior command worry about our readiness. We have not met recruitment targets for over a decade. We have yet to deliver on promises made by both the Harper and Trudeau governments when it comes to icebreakers, bases and infrastructure. The Arctic framework, with its yet-to-be defined “long-term vision”, dates to before the 2019 election. The Defence Policy Update is months overdue.

Our joint defence production agreements date back to the Second World War and they have sustained and created Canadian jobs and technological innovation. They also put us mostly within Buy American procurement qualifications, with the result that there is Canadian content in purchases such as the F-35 and surveillance aircraft.

Climate change needs to be processed as a security issue. Limiting fossil fuel production without taking into consideration that global consumption of fossil fuelscontinues to increase would benefit our adversaries. We should be working with the US and our allies to have secure supply chains for the renewables that exist today and be committed to taking some of the revenues that we derive from fossil fuels to working together on new technologies that will provide the world with affordable, low-emissions energy.

President Biden’s recent decision to freeze new LNG export approvals means our allies will be looking to other sources. Here, we can be helpful while serving our own interests. Germany, Japan and the EU have all come knocking at our door, giving us a “second chance” to harness our capacities and serve the collective energy security requirements of our democratic partners.

Whoever wins in November, we need to prepare for more American protectionism whether we are the direct target or, more typically, collateral damage.

And, before the election, political leaders must avoid the temptation to demonize Donald Trump to suit domestic politics. Even if Trump loses, his many supporters in Congress and in the states will not forget and if Trump does win he makes no bones about his desire for retribution.

The ‘secret sauce’ to successful relations is the ability of Canadian prime ministers to be constructive and active partners with US presidents on most big global challenges, because our interests and principles align. The Oval Office is also our best entrée into the cacophonous American system and our standing with the White House is a fair barometer of our ability to wield influence internationally.

We always need to remember that ours is an asymmetrical relationship. We depend on the US for our market and security. The US accounts for about 3/4 of our exports while we account for about 1/6 of theirs. Between a quarter and a third of our economy is generated through our US connections.

This economic interdependence, coupled with our security status as a contiguous neighbour, puts Canada in a political context unique among G7 countries. Washington is closer to Ottawa than it is to Chicago; this creates an imperative for public pragmatism and diplomatic creativity in dealing with the unprecedented political developments south of the border, as was so successfully evidenced in the NAFTA re-negotiation.

‘Business as usual’ never really characterized Canada-US relations because of our need to keep pace with American dynamism. So, we need to be bold, innovative, and then get it done.

Contributing Writer Colin Robertson, a former career diplomat, is a fellow and host of the Global Exchange podcast with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Ottawa.