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A ‘watershed year’ for Canada-U.S. relations, but guess who’s lurking in the wings?

WASHINGTON — Two years ago, the new United States ambassador to Canada arrived in snowbound Ottawa for the first time, thinking he knew all about America’s rock-ribbed relationship with its trusted northern neighbour. 

But David Cohen soon noticed something was amiss.

“As I began to travel around Canada, I was surprised to learn the pervasiveness of the loss of trust, on Canada’s part, of the United States,” Cohen told business leaders last month in the national capital.

“The constant refrain was, ‘What has happened to our relationship with the United States? Have we done something wrong?'”

South of the border, Cohen’s boss in the Oval Office was acutely aware of the lingering foreign-policy scars his sharp-elbowed predecessor, Donald Trump, left among some historically close U.S. allies.

That is how Kirsten Hillman came to encounter a surprise of her own. 

It was early 2023, and Hillman — Cohen’s counterpart in Washington — was at the White House, meeting with top U.S. officials as they prepared for Joe Biden’s first presidential visit to Canada.

She heard something she wasn’t expecting: the president’s most senior advisers talking earnestly and excitedly about their plans — not just the usual pro-forma stuff, but also how to ensure the trip accomplished something bigger. 

“‘What is this visit about? Why are we doing it? What do we want to come out of it — not transactionally, but in terms of America and its relationship with its northern neighbour?'” Hillman recalled Biden’s team saying.

This, she realized, wasn’t going to be just another wham-bam whirlwind trip aimed at placating a pesky foreign government, but a substantive, restorative exercise. They wouldn’t just be saying nice things — they would mean them, too. 

Yes, the 24-hour visit was brief. But it scratched a uniquely Canadian itch, helping to dispel public anxiety about the U.S. and becoming the centrepiece of what Hillman called a “watershed year” for the bilateral relationship.

“It was really remarkable, because it … led to a focus on us as strategic allies in a way that was, I think, very beneficial for Canada,” she said. 

“They were able to get out of their specific silos and realize, ‘Hey, we’re really lucky to have this northern neighbour, and are we doing enough with this relationship in this moment of challenge everywhere in the world?'”

How long that ambition can persist is an open question. 

Contrary to all conventional political wisdom, Trump appears well on his way to again securing the Republican nomination for president.

That’s despite the crushing legal burden of 91 felony counts in New York, Georgia, Florida and Washington, D.C. — and this week’s Colorado Supreme Court decision declaring him ineligible for the state’s presidential primary battle.

Trump’s incumbent Democratic rival can’t seem to get any electoral traction despite several significant legislative victories and clear evidence that the U.S. economy is doing better than many voters believe — or are perhaps willing to admit.

A CNN poll published earlier this month showed the current president with a 37 per cent approval rating, his lowest since taking office and one rivalled only by Trump himself in the weeks following the Jan. 6 riots on Capitol Hill.

Robert Kagan, whose seminal 2018 book “The Jungle Grows Back” warned of the dire consequences of U.S. isolationism, penned a Washington Post essay last month aimed at shaking American voters from their reverie.

“There is a clear path to dictatorship in the United States, and it is getting shorter every day,” Kagan wrote beneath a photo montage of Trump’s face superimposed over a bust of a famous Roman emperor. 

Americans, he concluded, are “hoping for some intervention that will allow us to escape the consequences of our collective cowardice, our complacent, wilful ignorance and, above all, our lack of any deep commitment to liberal democracy.”

Canada is not the only country that might be wondering how committed a friend it will have in the U.S. going forward. 

Republican opposition in Congress to sending badly needed military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine — a bill that has already exceeded $75 billion — has experts worried about a future without robust U.S. foreign policy as a stabilizing force. 

“It’s stunning that we’ve gotten to this point,” Biden said recently alongside Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who had returned to Washington, D.C., in hopes a personal visit could help break the logjam. 

Biden described how commentators on Russian state media were openly cheering the GOP’s opposition to providing additional U.S. aid to Ukraine. 

“If you’re being celebrated by Russian propagandists, it might be time to rethink what you’re doing,” Biden said. “History will judge harshly those who turn their back on freedom’s cause.”

Canadians might well remember the last time Trump was a president-in-waiting. Biden himself, who was vice-president at the time, warned that Canada would be called upon to step up to fill a void on the international stage. 

This time, the world seems a lot more dangerous.

“Both in the U.S. and Canada, I would say there’s an awareness that we need to be ready — and not a lot of confidence that we are,” said Chris Sands, director of the Canada Institute at the D.C.-based Wilson Center. 

“I get the sense that Canadians are starting to realize that the ‘holiday from history,’ as they called it back in the Clinton days … that time is over and Canada is in a position where it’s under-invested in some of the tools it needs now.” 

That likely includes areas like defence spending, foreign aid, the diplomatic corps — in other words, confronting Canada’s reputation in some circles as a confrontation-wary, foreign-policy lightweight. 

“It’s a feeling across the (U.S.) that things are not going well, and we need to respond to this with some leadership. And I think that’s an important anxiety,” Sands said.

“It’s part of the reason, I think, that people are anxious about a divisive Trump-Biden race. Because if we just sit tearing each other apart, how does that help us when we’ve got all these threats out there?”

But in the U.S., and to a degree in Canada, polls suggest it’s not just certain world leaders who harbour a growing reluctance to wade into potentially costly international affairs.

A recent Pew Research Center survey found just 30 per cent of right-leaning U.S. respondents want their country active in world affairs, compared with 43 per cent in the centre of the political spectrum and 65 per cent on the left. 

In Canada, by comparison, 40 per cent of those on the right and 54 per cent of centrists said they believe it’s best for the country’s future to be actively engaged in international affairs.

Either way, and regardless of the outcome of November’s presidential election, Canadians can expect additional pressure on their country to step up around the globe. 

“I can’t see any way that we go forward without the U.S. saying to its major allies, ‘You have to step up — and not just once, but you’re going to have to be with us,'” said Sands.

The same is true of meaningful action on climate, where the idea that the richest western countries should bear an outsized share of the burden for lowering emissions will be a tougher sell in coming years. 

“I think that sense of reciprocity is going to be important,” he said. “I think we need to see more that the world and us are together, not just the U.S. is acting. I think that will be necessary.” 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 21, 2023.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

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