Joe Biden’s visit to Canada this week is a reminder of how much Justin Trudeau’s life changed in the aftermath of the 2020 US presidential election.
Imagine the state of relations between Canada and the United States if Donald Trump had been elected to a second term. Would he have accepted a deal on Roxham Road? Stopped personally attacking Trudeau on social media? Stopped calling Canada’s trade practices “unfair”? And what would have been the position of Ottawa if Trump had managed to retain power after the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021? Trudeau and Biden have certainly broached difficult subjects in recent days, but it is the return to calm after the Trump storm that has prevailed during the meetings. However, the specter of Trump re-election will continue to haunt Ottawa by 2024.
Biden is also concerned about Trump’s return, and that’s one of the reasons he couldn’t respond positively to all of Trudeau’s demands to scale back protectionist measures hurting Canada. By hammering that free trade and globalization have hurt the United States, Trump has whetted Americans’ appetite for elected officials who promise jobs on American soil.
In field surveys conducted in the United States during the 2018 and 2022 midterm elections, we observed the rise in popularity of this theme, particularly in three Midwestern states crucial to Trump’s victory in 2016: Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. To take over these states and win the presidency in 2020, Biden had to adopt the same protectionist rhetoric as his opponent.
Biden distinguishes more than Trump between economic rivals and traditional allies of the United States. He was also against Trump’s tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum. But no visit to the Trudeau residence or learn-to-curl session for Jill Biden, Joe’s wife, could have convinced the White House to make major trade concessions to its northern neighbors, especially in areas crucial to winning the key presidential states of 2024.
So Canadians will have to get used to seeing Biden and his party listen to Wisconsin dairy farmers who hate Canada’s supply management system, Michigan voters who want cars assembled in North America to contain more parts made in the United States, and to unions in states like Pennsylvania demanding that its green revolution and infrastructure projects be made in America.
However, Trudeau can circumvent (part of) this protectionism if he demonstrates that Canada is essential to Biden’s main foreign policy objectives. This week’s talks held no surprises in this regard.
But his obsession for the next few years will remain to better compete with China and reduce the economic dependence of the United States on it.
In this regard, Biden’s and Trudeau’s commitment to better work together to repatriate supply chains of critical minerals and semiconductors to North American soil shows that protectionism towards Canada wanes when the White House sees it as a brake in the race against Beijing.
It is certainly no coincidence that the “Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy”, released last February, places so much emphasis on these supply chains and repeats almost verbatim the vision of China set out in the US National Security Strategy October 2022 (National Security Strategy). Canada’s goes even further, calling China a “disruptive power,” as if Ottawa wanted to make it as clear as possible to Biden that Canada has (finally) chosen sides.
Canadian leaders may also be betting that this stance on China will be necessary anyway if Biden is not re-elected in 2024. On the Republican side, the two favorites to win the party’s nomination (Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump) advocate even more toughness on Beijing. It remains to be seen whether, once elected, they would show as much interest as Biden in working closely with Canada to better compete with Chinese power. In the case of Trump, we already know the answer.