Better late than never: Trudeau finally gets a home visit from the US President

WASHINGTON — Joe Biden’s last official visit to Canada came with a palpable sense of foreboding.

Change was in the air. Authoritarian leaders in Syria and Turkey consolidated their power. Great Britain had voted to leave the European Union. And Donald Trump was waiting in the wings to take over the White House.

“Real leaders” are in short supply, and Canada and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are being urged to get involved, said the US vice president, who was on a farewell tour of sorts in the final days of the Obama administration.

Six years later, Biden comes back — this time as president — and the world looks very different. It probably won’t be his message.

“This moment in America is serious,” said Goldy Hyder, the President and CEO of the Business Council of Canada, who spent much of the past week meeting with US officials in DC

Chinese spy balloons float through North American airspace. Russian MiG fighter jets shoot down US drones as bloody war in Ukraine rages on. North Korea is testing long-range ballistic missiles.

And Xi Jinping is set to sit down with Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Monday, a meeting that will underscore the geopolitical context in which the US sees the world – and increase pressure on Canada to remain a willing and reliable partner, not only in Ukraine but elsewhere as well.

“It sheds a much brighter light on security in all its forms: national security, economic security, energy security, cybersecurity — all of these things are coming home to settle,” Hyder said of the gathering.

“There is nothing more important to America, and frankly, nothing should be more important to us.”

Enter critical minerals, the vital components of electric vehicle batteries, semiconductors, wind turbines, and military equipment that both Biden and Trudeau consider critical to the growth of the green economy.

Ending Chinese dominance in this area is Job 1 for the Biden administration, and Canada has critical minerals in abundance. But it takes time to build an extractive industry from scratch, especially in this day and age — and experts say the US is growing impatient.

“The reality is that with demand increasing, nobody is moving fast enough,” said Eric Miller, president of the DC-based Rideau Potomac Strategy Group, which specializes in Canada-US affairs.

A growing number of jurisdictions, including the European Union and US states like California and Maryland, are drawing up ambitious plans to end manufacture of internal combustion engine vehicles by 2035, Miller noted.

That’s just 12 years away, while it can take more than a decade to get a mine approved, let alone raise the money to build and operate it, he added.

“The challenge you have in a democracy is that processes are slow and in reality they are too slow compared to the demands of the green transition,” Miller said.

“So when you look across the landscape, you naturally think that other people’s systems are inherently simpler than your own.”

National security has also been a priority since last month’s spate of floating objects uncovered what Norad commander General Glen VanHerck called a “domain awareness gap” in North America’s aging binational defense system.

Updating Norad has long been an ongoing priority for both countries, but rarely one that both sides talk about much publicly, said Andrea Charron, a professor of international relations at the University of Manitoba.

“The problem for Norad is that it literally stays under the political radar — it’s difficult to get politicians to commit funds and recognize that it’s been North America’s first line of defense for 65 years,” Charron said.

“Russian aggression and these Chinese balloons now make it politically meaningful to try to rush things and make these commitments.”

Hyder said he expects the US to continue to pressure Canada to meet its NATO spending commitments and reiterated hope it will eventually agree to play a leading role in restoring some order to the lawless, gang-ravaged country to take over Haiti.

So far, international efforts to provide training and resources for the country’s national police are having no effect, warned the UN special envoy for Haiti in DC, urging countries to get a foothold.

“We can’t do the job,” Helen La Lime said at a meeting of the Organization of American States last week. “We must get to work to rebuild this country.”

Itinerant criminal gangs have steadily gained power after the assassination of President Jovenel Moise in 2021 and are now believed to control more than half of the capital, Port-au-Prince.

Even in the face of public – albeit diplomatic – pressure from US officials, Trudeau would prefer to help from afar, invest in security forces and use sanctions against the powerful Haitian elites who are fueling the unrest.

Charron warned that Haiti is a “complete and utter mess” that cannot simply be remedied with military intervention, no matter the size of the armed forces. The Canadian Armed Forces are already overstretched as they face ongoing long-term commitments in Ukraine and chronic manpower shortages, she added.

“Haiti is a swamp and no one is particularly interested in getting in there — especially if the US isn’t there as an exit strategy.”

The issue of irregular migration in both directions across the Canada-US border is also likely to be raised during the two-day visit, although the Biden administration is uninterested in renegotiating the Safe Third Countries Agreement, which critics say encourages migrants to sneaking into Canada to seek asylum.

Also, look for numerous mentions of the US-Mexico-Canada agreement, the successor to NAFTA, known in Canada as CUSMA, which now provides the framework for much of the economic relationship between the two countries.

No one is interested in renegotiating that deal now, but they still need to think about it, Hyder said: A six-year review clause means it could reopen by 2026.

“We all had a near-death experience a few years ago; it doesn’t seem like that long ago,” he said.

“And yet here we are. In a few years we will be there again.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on March 19, 2023.


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