Ottawa, like many capitals around the world, is looking anxiously towards events in the United States. In a few weeks time, American presidential elections are 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 that is sailing towards the other side of a deadly pandemic carrying a burden of around CAD$360 billion public debt and counting, the outcome of election could prove to be 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 retreating 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 White House. 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.
Trump Whitehouse 2.0
Let’s look at the Canadian impact of Trump keeping the White House for another four-year term ending in January 2025. In this scenario, the vital thread is an assumption that the 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-that the next Trump administration would look, act and behave like it did previously. That being said, it is not a given or a guaranteed outcome. It is likely that a Trump win will mean a deeper political polarisation 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 polarisation 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 polarisation 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. Institutional linkages that are over a century old could be in serious danger of irrevocable harm. It must be said that Politics can change with a change in leadership and societal values. However, institutional frameworks take decades to build and are often irrevocable once broken. Years of diplomacy and cross-border institutional relationships and work could potentially stall and require a re-building 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. We would like to add a note of caution that this is a hypothetical scenario 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 trade and the economic sphere, USMCA, or CUSMA in Canada, has been signed and secured. However in the political reality of America First and a possible shifting of supply chains from China, we may 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 US will be especially larger if the US takes longer than normal to recover from the pandemic related economic and financial damage.
Biden Whitehouse 1.0
A Biden win coupled with a downballot victory in the Senate might allay most of the above-mentioned fears for Canada. However, regardless of who wins the White House, a great-power competition is likely. 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 more broadly speaking. 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 the national economy and and second, to divert economic resources to compete with China in trade and geo-politics. 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-Covid-19 economic challenges. Saving vital American institutional alliances and policy coordination between the Canada and 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 and changing fast. The days of US heavy-lifting and a unipolar world have passed. The coming days call for a collaboration of economic strength to share in the heavy lifting and to share the power 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.
Waqas I. Yousafzai is a former Associate at the Pragmora Institute and Mohammad Rizwan is a seasoned journalist and a Fellow at the Pragmora Institute. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors only and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of any organization. Both authors can be contacted via twitter @waQasYousafzai and @RizToronto.
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