Ottawa is looking anxiously towards events in the United States. In a few weeks time, the American presidential election is scheduled with the potential to produce results that will define and set the course for relations between the two countries.
For Canada, a middle-power sailing towards the other side of a deadly pandemic carrying a burden of around CAD$360 billion public debt and counting, the outcome of the election could prove a watershed moment. After all, Canada, like many other friends and foes of the US, does not have the luxury to unilaterally plan a de-coupling and retreat into itself. Despite one being a constitutional monarchy and the other being a democratic republic, both states are joined at the hip with the world’s largest shared border at a staggering 8,893 kilometers. Connecting the two states is trade, cultural and historical legacies, and deeply integrated infrastructure. The two share waterways, airwaves, land routes, environment, coastlines, topography, culture, heritage, memberships in G7, NATO, OECD — practically everything. While the underlying fundamentals might remain the same, a Trump electoral victory will allow for a bolder Trump Whitehouse. On the other hand, a Biden win could mean policymakers in Ottawa will have to reset the pieces they moved in 2017 and yet again re-jig its Modus Operandi to reflect a different and new American direction. Regardless of the outcome, there will be a significant overhaul of Canadian strategies post 2020.
Four More Years of Polarization and Divide
Let’s try and build a Canadian perspective in case Trump gets to keep White House for another four-year term ending in January 2025. In this scenario, the vital thread is an assumption that Trump administration will act like and resemble the preceding four years. And since there are no signs, much less data, to suggest otherwise, we have to stick to the known frame of reference. i.e, the next Trump administration would look, act, and behave like the previous Trump administration. That being said, it is not a given or a guaranteed outcome.
It is likely that a Trump win will politically mean a deeper polarization within the American populace. Divisions within the country are likely to be more pronounced and fringe right-wing groups could potentially be emboldened by the victory. Racial and political polarization is likely to develop visible fissures and the wedge between red and blue states could grow deeper. A large question mark remains over the ability of American institutions to remain responsive in the face of increased polarization and the strength of their professional and ethical shields to protect the integrity of the system of government from political forces. If the institutions under a stronger and more centralized American executive are easily swayed, the social and political fissures are likely to creep into institutions as well — some of which was displayed during Trump’s first term. Hundreds of years old institutional linkages and fusion could be in serious danger of irrevocable harm.
It must be said that Politics can be managed. It can alter with a change in leadership and societal values. However, institutional frameworks take decades to build — centuries in the case of Canada — and are often irrevocable once broken. Decades of diplomacy and cross-border institutional relationships and work could potentially stall and will require a rebuild of trust. This problem would not be unique to Canada. All European and Asian allies are likely to struggle to do the same, but in the case of Canada it might prove more costly and painful due to the country’s close proximity and integration with its neighbour. I would like to add that this is a hypothetical scenario and a possibility and is not a certain outcome. Cross-border institutional cooperation exists in addition to political discourse and developments and is often based on an alignment in national interest, not politics.
In the trade and economic sphere, USMCTA, or CUSMA in Canada, and TMEC in Mexico, has been signed and secured. However in the political reality of America First and a possible shifting of supply chains from China, it may also witness hiccups and periods of uncertainty. There is deep anxiety around the globe as countries scramble for new trade alliances and trade deals to hedge against an uncertain economic future. Canada for its part has 31 free trade agreements in various stages of negotiation with an additional 14 free trade agreements having been ratified by the Canadian government and currently in force. This re-jigging will undoubtedly put pressure on already existing trade frameworks and relationships. The question mark around trade with the US will be especially larger if the US takes longer than normal time to recover from the pandemic related economic and financial damage.
Even Biden would not bring back the good ol‘ days
A Biden win coupled with a down ballot victory in the Senate might allay most of the above-mentioned fears for Canada, except the fact that whoever wins the White House, a great-power competition or maybe rivalry is here for real and knocking at the doors. A Biden win would likely save the institutional cooperation between the United States and Canada, in addition to European and Asian allies. It is likely to also be better for political and social cooperation. Canada will still have to look for a re-think of its orbit of alliances and actively seek to expand its relationships based on political and international clout due to the broader changing and shifting alliances that are taking place due to geo-strategic and geo-political forces. One potential space to delve into could be a stronger tilt towards Latin America and Asia-Pacific, while remaining pegged alongside Europe and the US in matters of national security, human rights, and democratic values.
There is a risk that a potential Biden administration is not able to bring back the good old days. The US under Amtrak Joe would be more embroiled in re-claiming and re-establishing its global leadership role. This rings particularly true when rivalry with China could mean the US would have to perform two herculean tasks simultaneously. First, taking care of home economically and politically. Second, diverting part of its economic resources to compete with China in trade and geo-politics. And here the role of allies like Canada, Britain, Australia, Japan and India would become mission critical. A network of trade alliances based on innovations and technology could become a vital tool to meet upcoming post-Covid19 economic challenges. Saving vital American institutional alliances and policy coordination between Canada and the United States would be one key dossier that a Biden administration can be expected to nurture.
Though a Biden White House is expected to produce more harmony and synchronization of purpose in terms of trade and geo-politics and social coherence, the fact remains that the world is changing right now and changing fast. The days of US heavy-lifting and unipolar world have passed. The coming days call for a collaboration of economic strength to share the lifting and sharing the rewards and influence in return.
Whichever way the American vote swings in November, it is certain that Canadian policymakers have their work cut out for them.
Titelbild: Pxhere. CC0.