In announcing a planned phone call on Friday between U.S. President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the White House’s intended message was clear: Traditional allies are back in favour, while despots, dictators and the killers of dissenters are on the outs.
The way press secretary Jen Psaki announced the scheduled call with Trudeau was revealing, as it came in response to a question that had nothing at all to do with Canada’s prime minister.
She was asked about Vladimir Putin. Specifically, she was asked when Biden would speak with the Russian leader. Psaki replied that it wasn’t an immediate priority.
“[Biden’s] first foreign leader call will be on Friday with Prime Minister Trudeau,” she said.
“I would expect his early calls will be with partners and allies. He feels it’s important to rebuild those relationships.”
U.S. plans to investigate Russia
Psaki elaborated on Putin in a separate news conference where she described Russia as “reckless” and “adversarial.”
She said Biden has tasked the intelligence community with reporting on a variety of alleged Russian transgressions: cyberattacks on U.S. companies, interference in U.S. politics, the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and Russian-paid bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
Yet the goal of rebalancing relationships away from rivals toward like-minded countries has been tested already.
Some Canadians, notably Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, want trade retaliation against the U.S. following the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline on Day 1 of the new administration. The decision undermines Canada’s No. 1 export to the United States: oil.
Biden’s foreign policy ambitions will keep being tested as international relationships undergo unwieldy twists on any given issue due to practical and political considerations.
Here is what we already know about the Biden administration’s approach to other countries after its first couple of days in office.
The moves so far
The administration will release a report on suspected Saudi government involvement in the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, an issue the last administration showed little interest in pursuing.
It is also threatening to cancel support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
It is willing to consider new NATO expansion on Russia’s doorstep, into Georgia, and in fact is staunchly supportive of the international military alliance.
And Biden has rejoined previous alliances the U.S. was either scheduled to exit (the World Health Organization) or had already left (the Paris climate accord).
These activities are intended to signal a dramatic change in foreign policy from Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, who frequently bashed the leaders of democracies and international institutions while simultaneously cultivating friendly relationships with non-democratic leaders in the Middle East, Russia and North Korea.
There will be contradictions in Biden’s approach — as there were in Trump’s.
For example, while Trump often had kind words for dictators, he also sanctioned their countries on occasion, including Russia and China.
Also, don’t count on an ambitious foreign policy from Biden. Early on, the new administration will be busy juggling domestic crises, said Edward Alden, an expert on Canada-U.S. relations.
“I think we are going to see an approach to alliances that looks a lot like [Barack] Obama’s — engaged, respectful, but not overly ambitious,” said Alden, a senior fellow at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.
“The United States has enormous problems at home, and those are going to take priority for some time.”
Alden said he does expect some new international initiatives, such as more active co-operation on global vaccine distribution.
Biden wants changes on Canada-U.S. pandemic travel
On COVID-19, Biden also wants to immediately connect with Canada and Mexico to establish new rules within 14 days for pandemic-related travel safety measures.
Alden also expects an attempt to rework and revive the international nuclear deal with Iran, and establish greater co-ordination with other countries in confronting China.
For example, Biden has proposed a summit of democracies where countries can share ideas for countering autocracies.
Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, told his confirmation hearing this week that the last administration had a point in reorienting policy toward Beijing.
“President Trump was right in taking a tougher approach to China,” Blinken said. “The basic principle was the right one, and I think that’s actually helpful to our foreign policy.”
He got into a testy exchange at that hearing with Sen. Rand Paul, a libertarian-minded Republican who favours a hands-off approach on foreign affairs.
When Blinken said he was open to expanding NATO membership to Russia’s neighbour Georgia, Paul called that a recipe for war with Russia.
Blinken argued the opposite is true. After years of Russian incursions in non-NATO Georgia and Ukraine, recent evidence suggests Russia is most belligerent with countries outside NATO’s shield, he said.
Keystone XL: The early irritant
Biden and Trudeau are expected to discuss new travel measures to control the spread of COVID-19, as well as Biden’s decision to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline expansion that would run south from Alberta to Nebraska.
So far, Trudeau has shown little desire to escalate the pipeline issue.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, on the other hand, has demanded retaliatory action, and some trade experts say potential legal avenues do exist.
But they’re skeptical they will achieve much.
Eric Miller of the Rideau Potomac Strategy Group, a cross-border consulting firm specializing in trade and government affairs, said the best that pipeline-backers can hope for is to sue the U.S. government for financial compensation for the cancelled project.
He said the Alberta government and the project’s developer, TC Energy, can try suing under the investor-state dispute chapter in the old NAFTA, which will remain in effect for two more years for existing investments.
“[But] nothing is going to force the Biden administration to deliver the permit,” Miller said.
“One has to be clear that there is no world in which Joe Biden [retreats on this].”
Canada-U.S. trade lawyer Dan Ujczo said he doubts complaints from Canada will make a difference. He said the most politically effective argument for the pipeline would come from Americans — from the companies and unions that would have serviced the project.
The Ohio-based lawyer said challenges under U.S. laws, such as the Administrative Procedures Act, could potentially work, but he cautioned: “They’re high hurdles.”