When then-Vice President Joe Biden last visited Ottawa, in 2016 as part of a valedictory trip, he was feted at an elaborate dinner and effused that the United States and Canada were “better positioned than any time since the end of World War II” to promote democracy around the world.
President Biden returns to Canada’s capital on Thursday to a very different world.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shut down economies. Russia’s autocratic ruler, President Vladimir Putin, has launched a military invasion of Ukraine.
An emerging superpower, China, is menacing its neighbors and sending reconnaissance balloons over North America.
Refugees are fleeing a once-democratic Venezuela.
Haiti is in anarchy.
Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will have much to talk about.
Both have backed Ukraine’s resistance against Vlad the Invader. But the United States is pressing Canada to increase military spending in support of NORAD (the North American Air Defense Command).
“I think Canada and the United States agree on the need for enhanced spending in the defense space,” David Cohen, U.S. Ambassador to Canada, told CBC in a pre-summit interview.
It is tradition for a new U.S. president to make his first foreign visit to the Great White North. Due to COVID, however, the get together in February of 2021 took place by video conference. The visits are a form of recognition valued by Canada. The two countries share 4,000-plus miles of the world’s longest peacetime border.
The Biden trip follows years of acrimony with Trump in office.
Just before a 2018 G7 conference in Charlevoix, Quebec, Biden’s predecessor slapped a twenty-five percent tariff on Canadian steel plus a ten percent tariff on aluminum, part of his “America First” trade policy.
Trudeau described the tariffs as “insulting” but emphasized continued collegiality with the U.S. Trump blew up on the flight back to Washington, D.C., and described the Canadian prime minister as “so meek and mild” as well as “very dishonest and weak.”
The insults out of right field have continued.
When a “Freedom Convoy” of truckers occupied downtown Ottawa in February of 2022, protesting vaccine requirements, Trump described Trudeau as a “far left lunatic who has destroyed Canada with insane COVID mandates.” FNC pundits have showered the prime minister with abuse then and since.
The Biden administration has moved to heal relations.
After the 2021 video conference, the president told reporters: “Canada and the United States are going to work in lockstep to display the seriousness of our commitments both home and abroad.”
Ambassador Cohen, playing Sherpa for the approaching summit, told CBC: “He (Biden) likes Canada, he cares about Canada, and the United States cares about Canada.” To which Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s ambassador in Washington, D.C., responded, “We’re sources of strength for each other.”
(Hillman works out of Canada’s embassy on Pennsylvania Avenue, a striking building designed by Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson, with a sculpture, “The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, the Black Canoe,” by British Columbia Haida artist Bill Reid. Then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney remarked, in a 1988 visit, that the ambassador’s digs were far more handsome than the PM’s office in Ottawa.)
What else is on the table? The two leaders are expected to talk about the depth to which they should intervene in Haiti, and what to do about gangs running rampant. Biden and Trudeau are both committed to action on climate.
They are expected to discuss critical minerals needed for car batteries and semi-conductors. Canada is edgy about our Inflation Reduction Act, and what role it is to play in the U.S. commitment to clean energy development.
The Biden decision to kill the Keystone XL pipeline stirred rancor in Canada’s energy industry. The pipeline was designed to transport Alberta tar sands oil, running south through “the States” to export terminals on the Gulf Coast.
China spying is sure to come up, because the reconnaissance balloon traveled over Canada on its journey from Alaska to the U.S. Trudeau is facing a mini scandal over allegations of a clumsy Chinese intervention in Canada’s 2021 election, supposedly supporting a candidate of his governing Liberal Party.
Curiously, trans-boundary issues generally get a back seat. The big salmon fishery of Southeast Alaska faces a potential threat from mines along major rivers – the Unuk, Taku and Stikine – which originate upstream in British Columbia.
The Colville Indians and conservation groups worry about expansion of a big copper mine near Princeton, B.C., on the Similkameen River, which flows south to join the Okanogan River in north central Washington.
Having entered office in 2015, Prime Minister Trudeau has witnessed the Obama, Biden and Trump administrations. His father, Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, dealt – sometimes contentiously — with the administrations of Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
Biden will address Canada’s Parliament before flying home. Visits take on the personalities of presidents. A tree planted on Parliament Hill by Richard Nixon, as a symbol of the countries’ friendship, grew up crooked.