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Kelly McParland: Biden says America is back. Trudeau hopes it's true

Canada's prime minister, Justin Trudeau (R), shakes hands with then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during a meeting in Trudeau's office on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, December 9, 2016.
Canada's prime minister, Justin Trudeau (R), shakes hands with then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during a meeting in Trudeau's office on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, December 9, 2016.

Justin Trudeau’s ears must have perked up smartly — assuming he does in fact have ears under those increasingly shaggy locks — when the new U.S. president addressed a digital conference on European security.

“America,” quoth Joe Biden , “is back.”

As Canadians we all know our prime minister holds the copyright on being back as a country. He declared it to the world five years ago and has perhaps lived to regret it as the world failed to treat poor polite us as anything more than the somewhat self-righteous middle power we’ve ever been. It’s entirely possible Biden had no inkling he was lifting a line from Trudeau when he announced the U.S. return, or perhaps he felt entitled to a bit of borrowing, given how shamelessly Trudeau co-opted Biden’s “build back better” campaign theme as his own.

They have much in common, these two. Biden’s US$1.9 trillion stimulus plan leaves Trudeau’s initial $82 billion version looking like a sad little cousin in patched clothing, but both clearly suffer no qualms about vast outpourings of borrowed money. Biden has already re-upped the U.S. in the Paris climate accord, which mirrors Trudeau’s quick trip to Paris in 2015 — at great cost in emissions — so a bevy of Canadian politicos could photo-op themselves at the summit. They employ similar rhetoric about their unyielding devotion to protecting Mother Earth, reducing gender gaps and generally being good people dedicated to saying all the right things.

Biden’s address to the Munich Security Conference, his first such appearance since taking office, no doubt also sent a shiver of relief through Ottawa as it addressed Canada’s No. 1 foreign problem: what to do about China. The previous U.S. administration was big on confrontation but not so hot on practical follow-through or cooperation with allies. Biden, in contrast, pledged to play a reliable and robust role in NATO and pressed European counterparts on the need for a shared strategy on a range of mutual concerns. In particular he singled out the threat represented by a “long term strategic competition with China.”

The world, he said, is at an “inflection point” between “those who argue … that autocracy is the best way forward … and those who understand that democracy is essential,” checking off a range of issues needing cooperation among western democracies.

“We have to push back against the Chinese government’s economic abuses and coercion that undercut the foundations of the international economic system,” he said, citing as well “those who would monopolize and normalize repression.”

“We cannot focus only on the competition among countries that threaten to divide the world, or only on global challenges that threaten to sink us all together if we fail to cooperate. We must do both, working in lockstep with our allies and partners.”

Could sweeter words be heard in Ottawa? Cooperation was certainly the thinking behind The Declaration of Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations unveiled last week by Foreign Minister Marc Garneau. Bearing the signature of 58 states, including the U.S., the declaration is primarily an effort to pressure China into releasing Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig by marshalling muscle Canada doesn’t have on its own. But without the reappearance of the U.S. as a reliable playing partner in international gatherings, nothing much was going to get done on that matter or many others.

Trudeau is due for a one-on-one session with Biden in a virtual meeting Tuesday and no doubt there will be much shared affirmation of their devotion to cross-border cooperation, even if the border is pretty much sealed to millions of people on both sides at the moment. Already the White House has pledged “the President will highlight the strong and deep partnership between the United States and Canada as neighbours, friends and NATO Allies,” while Trudeau has vowed “we will work together to end the COVID-19 pandemic and support people in both our countries.”

What Trudeau will be praying for is much greater willingness from Washington to settle disputes rather than create them, as was the habit of the previous administration. Biden has already cancelled the Keystone oil pipeline and signed an order requiring the government to “ Buy American ,” but there should be a lot less name-calling in future, and Trudeau should be fairly confident the president won’t start trashing him on Twitter the moment he hangs up the phone.

Maybe Biden will even agree to put a bit of muscle into pressuring China on its hostage diplomacy. The return to “normal” highlights just how much Canada’s well-being depends on friendly relations south of the border, and the personal inclinations of whoever happens to occupy America’s highest office. If America is truly “back,” Canada is back to playing nice and hoping for a positive reception.

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