Written by Michael Crowley
President Joe Biden spoke by video conference with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada on Tuesday, trying in his first virtual meeting with a foreign leader to restore a sense of normalcy to a core relationship brusquely upended by former President Donald Trump.
Trump often cast America’s northern neighbor, close ally and key trading partner as an economic predator and insulted Trudeau as “two-faced,” “weak” and “dishonest.” Tuesday’s tone could hardly have been more different.
“The United States has no closer friend than Canada,” Biden told Trudeau just before their meeting. “We’re all best served when the United States and Canada work together and lead together.”
“US leadership has been sorely missed over the past years,” Trudeau responded.
As a matter of diplomacy, the meeting was a somewhat stilted affair and a reminder of the persistence of the coronavirus. Ordinarily, Biden would have hosted Trudeau in the Oval Office, where cameras would have captured them seated next to each other in a classic Washington tableau.
Instead, Biden sat at the head of a long wooden table in the White House’s Roosevelt Room and interacted with a two-dimensional Trudeau, who appeared on a television monitor perhaps 20 feet away. He was joined by Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan.
Even through a distant screen, however, Trudeau was plainly relieved to be in the virtual presence of a new American president after the havoc Trump wreaked on one of the world’s most placid cross-border relationships.
In addition to belittling Trudeau, Trump imposed a 10% tariff on Canadian aluminum imports. “Canada was taking advantage of us, as usual,” Trump said when he renewed the tariff in August.
“It’s so great to see you, Joe,” Trudeau said Tuesday, adding that he was “really excited” to be working with the United States again on climate change, a top priority for the Canadian leader as well as Biden.
Despite a wide generational gap — Biden is nearly 30 years older than Trudeau, who is 49 — the two leaders are natural partners with similar political agendas. Trudeau was the first foreign leader to call Biden in November with congratulations on his election victory, and the first one Biden called after his swearing-in last month.
After their meeting, Biden and Trudeau delivered statements from the East Room of the White House, where by tradition they would have held a short news conference, taking two questions each. In this case, Biden spoke from a lectern alongside another video screen showing Trudeau, and the men did not take questions.
In their statements, Biden and Trudeau said they would cooperate not only on climate change but also on the coronavirus, as well as on restoring their respective economies and combating racial discrimination.
Biden also said that closer cooperation would allow the United States and Canada to more effectively compete with China. And he called on Beijing to release two Canadian men who have been detained in China for more than two years in what was widely perceived to be retribution for Canada’s 2018 detention of a prominent Chinese technology executive at the request of American prosecutors. “Human beings are not bartering chips,” he said.
In his remarks before their meeting, Biden also said that he saw Trudeau as an ally in his effort to resurrect the strength and image of democracy worldwide.
“As the leaders of the major democracies, we have a responsibility to prove that democracy can still deliver for our people,” Biden said, in an implicit reference to countries like Russia and China. “There are a lot of leaders around the world who are trying to make the argument autocracy works better.”
But the relationship between the United States and Canada is not trouble free. On his first day in office, Biden signed an executive order canceling a Calgary company’s construction permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline, a victory for environmental activists that Trudeau said left him “disappointed.” American dairy producers are also opposed to Canadian price and supply controls that they say have benefited their counterparts and put them at a disadvantage.
Canada also imposes tariffs on U.S. dairy imports, a practice Trump called “a disgrace.”
But on Tuesday, such belligerence seemed well in the past. Amid the talk of hard work ahead was a tone of comity, and even levity. After Trudeau shifted at one point into French, Biden remarked self-deprecatingly on his own linguistic abilities.
“I told you, Mr. Prime Minister, I took five years of French in school and college,” he said, adding that “every time I tried to speak it, I’d make such a fool of myself, I stopped trying.”
“At least when I try Spanish and I make a fool of myself, they laugh with me,” Biden said.
In his concluding remarks, Biden — a famously tactile, relationship-driven politician — seemed to acknowledge the sterility and awkwardness of an important meeting conducted through a screen.
“I look forward to when we’ll be able to meet in person,” he said. A few moments later, Biden bid his francophone counterpart farewell with a passable, if not quite fluent, “au revoir.”