In 1961, shortly after his election as President, John F. Kennedy made his first official visit outside the United States to Ottawa as tradition wanted. On his address to the Canadian Parliament, he summarized the Canada-U.S. relationship in this famous quote:
“Geography has made us neighbours. History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners. And necessity has made us allies. Those whom nature hath so joined together, let no man put asunder ”.
This quote best describes the relationship, even to this day. While there were moments in history where the relationship was not easy such as the War of 1812, Canada-U.S. relations remain a model to the world. We are both democracies, sharing the longest “undefended” border on the planet, and with federalism as a common political structure.
We have been actors on the international stage, sharing values and pursuing common objectives. Much of the world’s international institutions have both a strong U.S.-Canadian influence and initiative.
In recent years and since 1987, we have had a formal free trade agreement, which was expanded to include Mexico in 1994—all three countries sharing borders, democratic values, a federalist political structure, and prospering economics.
During the tumultuous Donald Trump years in the U.S. presidency, some strains developed in the free trade deal which gradually gave way to a new agreement in 2020, entitled the Canada–United States–Mexico Agreement (CUSMA), which was signed by all three countries. Since then, however, some disputes have occurred and some longstanding conflicts such as softwood lumber persist. We can expect some issues will continue to divide the two nations. Earlier in 2021 and shortly after the inauguration of President Joe Biden, a U.S.-Canada virtual summit was held. The vision of John F. Kennedy was very much in evidence as both President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau re-engaged on common values, shared goals, and working to find solutions to the major world challenges including COVID–19. The economy was disrupted by the pandemic, and both nations agreed to address issues regarding diversity, migration and climate change.
Despite the harmony, it is obvious that there are issues dividing us now and that some of them will continue to divide us in the future. As mentioned, the softwood lumber dispute continues with newly increased tariffs imposed by the Biden administration, and discussions about Canadian supply management in the dairy industry have emerged again. Those remain important challenges and the differences are not expected to go away in the short term.
Lately, the Biden administration’s intention to favor the purchase of U.S.-made electrical vehicles has been added to these areas of dispute. The rising tide of protectionism (Buy America), expressed over the years, with greater aggressivity by the Trump administration, continues under President Joe Biden. Certainly, we can hope that our free-market systems will remain the major arbiter to resolve trade issues and conflicts.
In the meantime, nonetheless, we can anticipate that Canadian market forces will continue to be confronted regularly by U.S. protectionist reflexes in 2022.
Challenges facing Biden
The Biden administration is currently facing many challenges, including mid-term elections. As we complete year 1 of the Biden presidency, we have continued partisan politization increasing pessimism within the American electorate, and the declining popularity of the Biden administration. After a robust and positive beginning in 2021 where vaccination rates against COVID-19 and its variants increased significantly by mid-year, a significant COVID-19 relief plan was enacted, and the American economy grew appreciably. President Joe Biden is now facing some serious headwinds.
The bungled withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan was possibly a turning point. The effect of the Delta and Omicron variants on the economy created uncertainty about continued growth and normality. Rising inflation rates further add to the growing skepticism. Political debates over vaccination mandates only made matters worse for Joe Biden’s prospects as we enter an election year with the mid-terms in November 2022.
It is said that the first mid-terms after a new President is elected can become a referendum on the sitting administration. In recent years, we have seen President Bill Clinton in 1994 losing both houses in Congress, and Barack Obama in 2010 losing control of the House of Representatives. It is highly likely that with his current approval numbers (under 45 percent), Joe Biden will lose the control of Congress. He will need some short-term successes to reverse the current tendency.
Just recently, the Biden-Harris team signed into law a $2-trillion infrastructure plan affecting roads, bridges, rail lines, etc. It was essentially bipartisan as Republican members in the Senate gave the Democrats the needed 60 votes plus (out of 100 Senators) needed to make it into a law. It was a significant achievement, and one that will be felt across the nation. This along with the earlier-mentioned relief plan may help prospects for Joe Biden and his party.
However, President Biden suffered two major setbacks, and this is largely due to Democratic dissensions. These are the Build Back Better plan, enfolding social, environmental and economic infrastructure plan, and the Voting Rights initiatives to increase access to voting. To succeed, Biden needed the total support of Democrats in the Senate to either modify the filibuster rule (where it takes the support of 60 Senators out of 100, and the total support of the 50 Democrats in the Senate on both projects.
The opposition of two Democratic Senators—Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona—has dealt a significant blow to the Biden agenda in this mid-term electoral year.
Another factor could come into play in 2022. It has to do with the current Mississippi abortion law which, among other important provisions, limits abortions to a maximum of 15 weeks. This is a direct challenge on the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, which is essentially seen as the preeminent pro-choice ruling on abortion. This ruling was essentially mentioned in a later ruling in 1992. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling in June 2022.
Latest polls indicate close to 60 percent of Americans support a women’s right to choose. The Democratic party and the Biden administration support Roe v. Wade and consider it as the law of the land. Most Republicans, heavily supported over the years by social conservatives and the evangelical movement, remain in favor of the pro-life movement. Depending on the judgement, we can expect it to play a significant role in the 2022 mid-terms.
Add to all of this the Trump factor. Donald Trump continues to be the major player in the GOP, and he continues to hint at a 2024 presidential run. Clearly, the Republicans capturing Congress next November would only make it a greater presidential challenge.
Clearly, 2022 will not be a quiet year in U.S. politics.
The state of US Democracy
As we see emerging dynamics regarding rising autocracies and more embattled democracies, a great emphasis is placed on the state of democracy regarding our southern neighbour. Some experts talk of a decline, others refer to the failed attempt to overthrow the democracy on January 6, 2021, and others claim that the threat is not ended.
Added to this are persisting efforts to question the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s election. Republican-controlled states are following a pattern of trying to install a more partisan state control mechanism in the methods related to the conduct of elections. Gerrymandering districts and voter suppression laws continue to emerge throughout many states. Unlike Canada, U.S. federal elections are conducted under individual state rules.
The current Congressional investigation regarding the events and insurrection of January 6 continue to illustrate the vulnerability of the electoral system. The fact that the Republican party is not officially cooperating with getting to the truth behind the violence of that day only adds to a sense that American democracy has never been as fragile since the Civil War.
The continued presence of former President Donald Trump adds to the picture of disarray. He continues to spread the so-called “big lie” about 2020 election results. In addition, he continues to bully his party, or anyone within the party who challenges or criticizes him.
Above all, he maintains control of the party base with his not-so-subtle implications that he will run for the presidency in 2024.
Are there some positive factors at play to preserve and enhance U.S. democracy? Is this merely a transition period of polarization, sustained by social media within a universe of opinionized news coverage?
I remain an optimist ultimately and I believe that U.S. democracy will continue and gradually revive itself. The constitutional “check and balances” continues to be in force—the independent judiciary system, the division of powers between the executive (Presidency) and the legislative (Congress), as well as federalism which have served Americans well.
The 1960’s and 1970’s were marked by racial and criminal violence, assassinations of the two Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, intense polarization over an unpopular war in Vietnam, the eventual resignation of President Nixon in 1974 for violating the constitution, and rampant inflation in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Yet, the United States survived, won the Cold War, continued to enact civil rights laws, and remained the most significant and preeminent superpower in the world.
The year 2022 will not be easy, however. Already, the Biden administration has suffered a major setback in promoting voting rights and modifying the filibuster rule in the Senate.
There is also apprehension expressed about the Supreme Court, and whether the Roe v. Wade abortion ruling of 1973 will be substantially modified or overturned. We can expect some important repercussions. Is the Supreme Court becoming too political? Expect this to be a dominant issue.
In addition, money continues to play an all-too-important role in the conduct of U.S. elections. Here the polarized state of U.S. politics only reinforces the impact of money. Former President Trump is starting a new social media outlet. Expect this to be a source of money-raising to threaten opponents in and out of his party.
While American history would tend to support the triumph of democracy that when facing turmoil, I must concede there are serious challenges and obstacles ahead. Perhaps, more than ever.