By Susan DelacourtNational Columnist
Wed., Jan. 19, 2022timer4 min. read
updateArticle was updated 5 hrs ago
Joe Biden has spent much of the last year learning how much his country changed under Donald Trump.
One big change, Biden said in a major speech last week, lies in how other countries — including Canada — view the United States.
The president talked about how he showed up optimistic and upbeat for a meeting with other G7 leaders over the past year, only to collide with a wall of skepticism about America’s democratic future.
“I said, ‘America is back,’ Biden recalled. “And the response was, ‘For how long?’ ‘For how long?’ As someone who’s worked in foreign policy my whole life, I never thought I would ever hear our allies say something like that.”
Justin Trudeau would have been one of the voices in that skeptical chorus. In fact, in that relatively short span of time since Biden left the White House and then returned as president, Trudeau has gone from political rookie to the leader with the most seniority around the G7 table.
A little over five years ago, Biden was the wise political veteran paying a call on a newly elected prime minister in Ottawa and telling him how he would have to carry the torch of progressive politics on the global stage. Now that globe has spun on its axis.
In 2021, it’s Trudeau who can tell Biden a thing or two about how the world has worked under the disrupting influence of Trump. Biden may have thought a year ago when he came into office that it was a big thing to declare that “America is back.” Trudeau could have probably told him — and maybe he has, privately — that it wasn’t going to be that simple.
Canada has felt and seen the effects of a United States that turned its attention inward under Trump — a condition that persists today, despite the fact that Democrats have regained control of the White House and Congress.
The isolationism and protectionism that Trump encouraged still flourishes in the Canada-U.S. relationship. The most notable example at the moment is the ongoing Canada-U.S. fight over proposed subsidies for American-made electric vehicles, which is not a Republican creation, but a Democrat one.
At the big climate-change summit in Glasgow last fall, Trudeau and his delegation could not help but notice how much Biden was distracted by domestic politics, at the very moment the world was looking for environmental leadership from the United States. Trudeau’s officials were struck by how the Americans’ focus at Glasgow was constantly diluted by political drama back at home in Congress.
“Biden has huge, huge domestic responsibilities that he’s trying to navigate,” Trudeau told me in an interview in December, explaining that he still sees the current U.S. president as “one of the good guys,” but with a lot of political problems getting in the way.
Trudeau’s not the only Canadian leader, or former leader, who has observed the waning U.S. leadership on the world stage either.
Back last spring at the Conservative party’s virtual convention, former prime minister Stephen Harper appeared in a private panel discussion with former British prime minister David Cameron. Harper talked of how he’d been struck by the absence of U.S. leadership — globally — during the pandemic.
It was a sharp and telling observation. When the pandemic first hit in 2020, it’s true that no one was looking to Trump’s America for a globally co-ordinated response. By then, nearing the end of the Trump presidency, the world had come to assume that the United States would look out for itself first and the rest of the world later.
That is the United States that all those G7 leaders had seen in the four years before Biden arrived to tell them last year that America was “back.” This is the America that consumed much of Trudeau’s time and energy in the time before the pandemic. That skepticism that Biden encountered among his fellow leaders was hard-earned.
As Biden hits his one-year mark in office this week, the Trudeau government says privately and publicly that things are a little less crazy and unpredictable with the U.S. than they were with Trump.
But the Trudeau government has not recaptured the warm glow of friendship it enjoyed in that one year, 2015-2016, when Barack Obama was president and Biden was vice-president. There have been no big state dinners, no “bromance” between the leaders, no presidential visits to Ottawa even.
Biden marked his year in office on Wednesday with a speech laced with assurances on how things will get better. Canada wasn’t the intended audience for those remarks, but the reaction here will be infused with much of the same skepticism Biden saw at the G7. Better, but when and for how long?
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