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Opinion | How Biden Should Fix U.S.-Canada Relations

As with so much else that President Biden has done during his first days in office, a simple act of courtesy — a phone call to Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, and a promise to get together soon — is in itself viewed as a major and welcome break with the Trump era. But being friends again, Canadians have been quickly reminded, does not cure all ills.

Improving relations with Canada was not a heavy lift. Former President Donald Trump’s treatment of America’s northern neighbor and closest ally stood out even in the general disdain the administration displayed toward international allies. In an infamous clash around the 2018 Group of 7 meeting in Canada, Mr. Trump slapped tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum in the name of national security and then assailed Mr. Trudeau as “very dishonest & weak” for complaining.

When Mr. Biden chose Mr. Trudeau for his first official telephone call on Jan. 22 and had, by all reports, a friendly chat, there was a sense that something akin to normalcy was returning to relations between two nations. After all, the two countries share a language, a colonial history, a continent and the world’s longest international border and do around $700 billion in trade a year. “Talk again soon, Joe,” tweeted Mr. Trudeau after the call, suggesting that all was good once again.

Yet even before that call, Canadians were reminded that the huge, powerful and rich country to their south may not always be such a good neighbor. For one thing, that long land border has been closed to all but essential travel since March 21 and looks to remain that way for a while yet while the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage.

More troubling to Canadians is that one of Mr. Biden’s first moves upon entering the White House was to cancel Keystone XL, a pipeline project meant to carry crude oil from Alberta to Nebraska. That he did so was not a surprise — the pipeline had been blocked by the Obama administration when Mr. Biden was vice president and revived under Mr. Trump. Mr. Biden had made clear that he’d nix it again on environmental grounds.

But it created a political problem for Mr. Trudeau, who has tried to balance a progressive climate policy with oil production and export. It also hurt that Mr. Biden took the step without consulting the Canadians, though they were the ones who would suffer the bulk of the loss. Jason Kenney, the premier of Alberta province, where the oil industry rules, called it “a gut punch.” “It’s very frustrating that one of the first acts of a new president was, I think, to disrespect America’s closest friend and ally — Canada,” he said.

Opinion Debate
What should the Biden administration and a Democratic-controlled Congress prioritize?

  • The Editorial Board writes that to improve relations with Canada after four years of Trump, Biden must “show that America is prepared to walk alongside its neighbor, rather than kick it around.”
  • Nicholas Kristof, Opinion columnist, writes that the president needs a deft China policy: “The coming years represent the greatest risks since I began covering U.S.-China relations in the 1980s.”
  • Michelle Goldberg, Opinion columnist, writes that in this unique moment, Biden “has the potential to be our first truly post-Reagan president.”
  • Adam Finn and Richard Malley, physicians specializing in infectious disease, argue for a faster vaccination strategy: “The excess of caution is killing people.”

While Canadians were celebrating the end of Mr. Trump’s “America First” bombast, Mr. Biden came up with a “Buy American” executive order “on Ensuring the Future Is Made in All of America by All of America’s Workers.” Again, the order was signed with no apparent recognition by Mr. Biden of the threat he posed to Canadian businesses that participate in the many cross-border supply chains that link the American and Canadian economies.

These conflicts are not new. Canadians have long felt more comfortable with Democratic presidents and their more liberal policies, even while chafing at the protectionism championed by the party in the name of American workers. The frustration among Canadians is with being taken for granted, with the U.S. government’s habit of taking actions that have considerable repercussions in Canada without deeming it necessary to consult Canada. That was evident in the headline of an editorial in The Globe and Mail, a national daily newspaper, on Mr. Biden’s Keystone XL decision: “By Blocking Keystone XL, Joe Biden Is Scoring an Easy Political Win — at Canada’s Expense.”

Similar sentiments surround the 2018 detention of Meng Wanzhou, the daughter of the founder of the Chinese tech giant Huawai, on an American arrest warrant. The arrest infuriated China, which arrested two Canadian citizens — Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor — in retaliation. The “two Michaels,” as they’re known in Canada, remain in Chinese prisons, and Ms. Meng is under relatively luxurious house arrest in Vancouver as extradition proceedings continue.

For now, the Canadian relief at the exit of Mr. Trump probably overrides whatever worries Mr. Biden’s executive orders have revived, and whatever fears linger in Canada about the politics to their south. To really heal the wounds of the past four years, Mr. Biden would do well, when he meets with Mr. Trudeau, to demonstrate that the United States really does appreciate the depth of its unique bond with Canada.

Helping secure the return of the two Michaels would be a good start. The president could also reassure Canadians that their interests will be taken into account under the “Buy American” edict. Given that Canada has less access to coronavirus vaccines than the United States, signaling a readiness to share some jabs would also be hugely popular.

But to really draw the line under the Trump administration, Mr. Biden should simply show that America is prepared to walk alongside its neighbor, rather than kick it around.

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