The voting has stopped, and many results of the election remain unclear. Yet I can confidently predict that peace and quiet will not return to Washington until inauguration day on January 20th (at the earliest). To borrow a line from former US ambassador to Canada Bruce Heyman, the national pastime of Canadians is not hockey but negotiation, and in the United States it is not baseball but litigation. Our systems of law and regulation are never settled beyond the reach of legal challenge.
Disappointing though it is, it is likely that the next four years will see a continuation of the partisan polarization that has made getting anything done at the federal level in the United States difficult. A re-elected Donald Trump would face a Democratic Party that bet on another moderate centrist presidential candidate and lost, and the party’s more radical factions will gain influence. A Biden administration would be in a better position to manage the Democratic Party’s competing factions but under constant criticism from the former president seeking payback for efforts to undermine his administration with conspiracy allegations.
What does this mean for Canada, and for Canada-US relations? The bilateral agenda includes the implementation of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) and trade conflicts, China and the US-China confrontation, overcoming the COVID pandemic, and reviving the economy.
The good news for Canada is that there are signs of bipartisan consensus in Washington on several policy issues. And during the next few years we can expect shifts in the US political parties and politics as Millennials take over from the Baby Boomers as the dominant cohort in the US electorate. Canadians should begin now to develop a strategy for the next four years to manage current conflicts while laying the foundation for renewed bilateral relationship with a new generation of American leaders well into the future.
Bipartisan consensus on trade and stimulus
In 2019, exports accounted for 31.6 percent of Canada’s GDP, with the US the largest market. This makes American attitudes on trade important. The USMCA won bipartisan support in the US House and Senate, and by bigger margins than supported the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement in 1988. Members of both American political parties have now indicated agreement on a trade policy that seeks market access for goods and services in which the United States is highly competitive, and preserves an ability to protect jobs in declining industries. While this abandons the former US commitment to free trade as a matter of principle, it does make the United States a more predictable partner. This new sword and shield trade policy now resembles that of most other countries, including Canada.
Leaders of the incoming 117th Congress will begin work on a new COVID relief package, after talks between the Trump administration and congressional leaders on a second measure fell apart in the weeks before the election. Democrats and Republicans seem to agree that infrastructure stimulus will be a priority, with “Buy American” requirements likely that will cause headaches for Canadian firms.
The 116th Congress did not include “Buy American” provisions when it passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in 2020 to provide a record $2 trillion in economic stimulus during the pandemic. The stimulus included massive investments in research to find vaccines and more reliable testing for COVID-19, business financial assistance, and the waiving of some taxes while the pandemic unfolded. Congress approved the CARES Act by huge, bipartisan majorities with a final vote of 419-6 in the House of Representatives and 96-0 in the Senate. In the current crisis, fiscal restraint lacks champions in either party.
Broad agreement on foreign policy
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Several elements of the Trump administration’s foreign policy are also supported by both parties. The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations’ polling suggests that a majority of voters support the consensus on confronting China – a consensus that started in Washington’s foreign policy community. The new American focus on competition with great power rivals China and Russia was signaled by the 2017 National Security Strategy of the United States. The strategy prioritized deterrence over fighting terrorist groups and their state sponsors, which was the focus of US military strategy during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. With the costs of rebuilding the US economy mounting, voters are also tired of decades-long commitments to nation-building projects that kept US troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Veterans of those conflicts led the way in supporting this shift. The Trump administration’s diplomatic effort that resulted in the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan to establish diplomatic ties with Israel is likely to be popular with US voters in both parties.
The thriving bilateral relationship
In the same way that the polarization of the US electorate obscures areas of bipartisan consensus, President Donald Trump’s disregard for common courtesy and fair play in his approach to Canada and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gives a misleading impression of a bilateral relationship in serious trouble. In fact, the United States and Canada have continued to work closely together on shared challenges since 2016.
Canadian researchers are working with US counterparts to find a COVID vaccine and better testing methods, while Health Canada is partnering with the US Food and Drug Administration and the US Centers for Disease Control on treatments and public pandemic guidance. When a vaccine is available, will Canada’s pharmaceutical firms have access to the formula and join in the rush to produce as many units as possible?
The Canada Border Services Agency and the RCMP are working jointly with US Customs and Border Protection and the US Border Patrol to manage joint border restrictions to stem the spread of the pandemic while allowing supply chains to continue to operate. In March, these border restrictions will have been in place for a year. Will Washington and Ottawa agree on a plan to phase out these restrictions, and on the data points that will justify a gradual re-opening consistent with public health?
Last January, Canada and the United States signed a Joint Action Plan on Critical Minerals Development Collaboration to counter Chinese control over supplies of minerals necessary for consumer electronics, electric vehicles, and defense technologies. Will Canadian mining give the United States a competitive edge in innovation?
And hundreds of officials in both countries are working with Mexican counterparts to implement the USMCA, filling the rosters of more than a dozen committees designated within the agreement to ensure that it operates as planned. In 2026, the USMCA mandates that Canada, the United States, and Mexico reopen the agreement to make changes, fix problems, and perhaps extend it to cover new topics.
The next four years are a time to develop Canadian proposals for 2026, when, no matter how the US 2020 election is ultimately resolved, neither Trump nor Biden will be president of the United States.