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Tuesday / September 21
HomeIn-Depth AnalysisThe Future of Canada-US Relations after the 2020 US Presidential Elections

The Future of Canada-US Relations after the 2020 US Presidential Elections

Image Credit: The White House

By Pouyan Kimiayjan | Research Associate

The outcome of the US presidential election in November will ultimately determine the future of bilateral relations with the United States. Canada faces two prospects: the re-election of President Donald Trump or former Vice-President Joe Biden winning the general election.

With less than 30 days left until the US presidential election, our southern neighbour is already engulfed in multiple crises: wildfires across its West Coast, violent racial protests in multiple major cities, and the deadly spread of the coronavirus. Until now, Canada has exercised prudence and caution. The federal government closed Canada’s shared borders with the US to prevent a resurgence of the virus within the provinces and territories, attempted to address racial inequality at home to prevent a spill-over of Black Lives Matter protests in Canadian cities, and extended a helping hand to Californians battling deadly wildfires. Meanwhile, the Trudeau government continues to confront an increasingly hostile American administration—one that undercut Canada’s medical supply chains and threatened tariffs on Canadian aluminum exports in the midst of an economic downturn. Although Canada has overcome these hurdles with relative success, the outcome of the US presidential election in November will ultimately determine the future of bilateral relations with the United States. Canada faces two prospects: the re-election of President Donald Trump or former Vice-President Joe Biden winning the general election. This article will explore the implications of both scenarios on the future of Canadian foreign policy.

Canada and a Second-term Trump

Since assuming office, the Trump administration has withdrawn and renegotiated several multilateral agreements that include Canada as a signatory member. From abandoning the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), to forcing a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ policy has sincerely undermined Canadian economic interests. The former prevented Canada from increasing exports to the Asia Pacific region, and the latter impaired Canada’s sovereign right to trade with China. Additionally, the renegotiation of NAFTA, which produced the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), included the lifting of import restrictions on American dairy, among other concessions.

On climate change, the Trump administration’s lack of interest in tackling this crisis has hindered Canada’s ability to protect its own population from life-threatening effects. The recurring wildfires in California—made far deadlier by rising temperatures, according to FEMA experts—produced extreme pollution in Canada’s western province of British Columbia. Throughout the 2020 wildfires, Vancouver’s weather was ranked as among the worst in the world, second only to Portland. In parallel, the Trump administration’s neglect of the climate crisis also triggers volatility for many businesses, including those in the auto industry that depend on cross-border trade. Trump’s war with California over fuel efficiency standards threatens more than 525,000 Canadian workers in the auto industry.

In other policy arenas, the US’ unpredictable and dangerous foreign policy adventurism threatened Canadian lives abroad. Trump’s hawkish approach towards Beijing necessitated the notorious Canadian arrest warrant for Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, which, in turn, ultimately prompted the arrest of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in China. The US has yet to convince Beijing to release the two detained Canadians. In Western Asia, the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani produced dangerously heightened tensions in the region, resulting in the calamitous downing of Flight 752 that killed 176 passengers, including 55 Canadians. As Prime Minister Trudeau argued, “If there was no escalation recently in the region, those Canadians would be right now home with their families.” The confrontation also put the safety of Canadian troops at risk and forced the relocation of CAF troops from Iraq to Kuwait to prevent Canada from being dragged into a potential US-Iran conflict. Concerning the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States withdrew from the World Health Organization (WHO), where Canada is a contributing member-state, and also impeded Canada’s efforts to import N95 face masks. Moreover, the United States’ disastrously mishandled pandemic response has resulted in a devastating loss of human life and plunged the US economy into a recession, which has reproduced negative effects in the Canadian economy.

Protests against downed Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 in front of Amir Kabir University. Image Credit: MojNews

A second Trump term would mean a continuation of this turbulent relationship. Last month, Canada won a trade dispute with the US on lumber before the World Trade Organization. Washington has responded by appealing the case, a decision that concerns Ottawa. This latest dispute reflects the ongoing strained trade relations under the Trump administration. In addition to lumber, the two countries are engaged in a long-standing dispute over aluminum. Until now, the United States has refrained from slapping tariffs on Canadian aluminum, following the federal government’s credible threat to impose tariffs on American imports. And on US trade with the Asia Pacific, the recent trade deal with China has been a major source of concern for Canada, given that China’s commitment to purchase large amounts of American agricultural products and other imported goods will be painful for Canadian exporters.

Moreover, a prolonged weak response to the COVID-19 pandemic from Washington will continue to negatively impact the US economy. The US President and First Lady have both contracted the virus, further impeding effective leadership in managing this crisis. This is bad news for Canada, a country highly reliant on trade with its southern neighbour. On vaccines, for example, the US has already indicated that it will not join the COVAX project, a global procurement initiative aimed at ensuring equitable, fair, and timely access to vaccines for lower-income countries. Canada, on the other hand, has pledged to $440 million to the initiative. Managing the distribution of vaccines will be critical to Canadian health security, as containing the virus abroad will allow Canada to control its spread within its own borders.

Canada and a Biden Presidency

To assess the future of US-Canada relations under a Biden presidency, we must first consider historical precedence: exploring President Obama’s relationship with Canada, when Joe Biden served as his Vice President. Under the Obama administration, one major dispute was the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. The abandonment of Keystone dealt a heavy blow to bilateral relations. The pipeline was critical to Canada’s energy policy, which to this day requires increased export capacity to be financially viable. Regardless, Canada and the US cooperated on border security improvements, mutually beneficial infrastructure projects, and law enforcement activities, without hindering tourism and trade. The Obama administration also worked with Canada and other allies to craft the CPTPP, which, as previously mentioned, would’ve expanded Canada’s export market in the Asia Pacific.

Moving forward, in comparison to strained relations under President Trump, Canada stands to benefit from a Biden presidency. First, Biden’s domestic policies will improve Canada’s economy. If elected, Biden has promised to raise corporate tax rates. This policy will increase Canada’s competitive corporate tax advantage: large US corporations would pay a higher marginal effective tax rate (METR) of 25.4%, compared to Canada’s corporate METR of 15.5%. Although, one must keep in mind that a substantial increase in American corporate taxation might hurt Canada’s exports to the US in return. Second, a Biden administration will rejoin the Paris Climate Change Accord, which will provide ample opportunities for the two countries to cooperate on a range of issues, such as renewable energy, to fight the threat of climate change. Third, reduced global tensions will keep Canadians safe abroad. For example, a less hostile relationship between China and the United States might lead the US to abandon the indictment of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, which would likely help free the ‘Two Micheals’ from China. Fourth, similar attitudes on trade between the Trudeau government and the Biden administration can help diminish trade tensions. A multilateral free-trade agreement, designed similarly to the CPTPP, might help Ottawa and Washington gain more influence in the Asian market.

However, regardless of who assumes the presidency in November, US public opinion must also be taken into consideration. Public opinion plays a major role in influencing policy-making in Washington, and a Democratic White House in 2021 will not resolve all US-Canada disputes. In 2017, following the election of Donald Trump, 46% of Americans believed that NAFTA was bad for the United States. Major US presidential candidates in 2016, including Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton, either denounced NAFTA or backed negotiating its terms. Meanwhile, recent inquiries suggest increased support for free-trade—in 2019, numerous polls indicated that nearly two-thirds of Americans welcome free-trade with foreign nations. With respect to US trade with Canada and Mexico, a 2020 Gallup poll shows that 8/10 Americans believe that the USMCA will be advantageous for the United States. While the majority of Americans’ support for foreign trade is a positive development for Canada, a more in-depth assessment of these polls warrant attention. In that same Gallup poll, more Democrats, compared to Republicans, expressed concern about free-trade with Canada and Mexico: 20% of Democrats believed that the USMCA would be disadvantageous for the US, whereas only 6% of Republicans held the same view.

Embassy of Canada in Washington, D.C. Image Credit: AgnosticPreachersKid

In other words, protectionist sentiments are not exclusive to Donald Trump’s electoral base. Even if Biden wins the presidency, trade tensions will more or less continue between the two countries. In a recent article for the Globe and Mail, former Canadian diplomat Lawrence Herman accurately assessed that there is a strong anti-free-trade sentiment within the Democratic party due to the major influence of organized labour groups, namely the United Auto Workers. Such sentiments, coupled with the influence of trade-skeptic Democratic politicians in US-Canada border states, will contribute to continued economic tensions under a Democratic presidency. Against the backdrop of Canada’s decades-long trade disputes with consecutive Democratic and Republican administrations over soft-wood lumber, Herman argues that there is the possibility of a future Democratic administration utilizing the bipartisan-backed trade remedy system against Canadian interests.

Nevertheless, trade tensions and other areas of dispute can be more prudently managed under a Biden presidency. Canada and the United States will have the opportunity to capitalize on mutual strategic interests, such as fighting the myriad threats of climate change. However, with the re-election of Donald Trump, tensions could rapidly escalate out of control. In fact, after a second potential election victory, President Trump could become even more unhinged in his approach towards Canada. Trade disputes could continue to intensify without cooperation on shared interests such as climate mitigation and curbing the spread of COVID-19. Uncertain days are ahead, and Canada needs to be extra vigilant, prepared for either scenario.

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  

Panelists:

Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security

 

Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.

Panelists:

Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.

 

Panelists:

Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 

Panelists:

Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 

 

Panelists:

Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.

 

Panelists:

Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor