The Policy Insights Forum was honoured to host Lieutenant-General (Ret’d) Andrew Leslie for a conference on resetting the Canada - United States (US) relationship on Wednesday, February 24, 2021.
The conference began by painting the general context of Canadian-American relations. The global system in which we are set is multipolar with the rise of China and other countries and is more interconnected through vast globalization. With the growing interdependence of the recent international world order, new issues and risks arise through the threat of cyberattacks or pandemics. Likewise, the relative power of non-state actors may also cause friction. To this end, cyber-programs have been developed between Canada and the US, integrating their defence and other fundamental national aspects. Canada must, however, become more serious about cyber-protection programs not only where the state is concerned but also regarding banking and other companies. There is a clear need for national cyber-defence.
The election of Joe Biden represents good news amidst these strange times, during which a sense of unease and worry is increasing. Both President Biden and Vice-President Harris have made clear where their priorities lie. They focus on dealing with the pandemic and its immediate economic impacts on the US, as shown by the Buy American Act. Even though President Biden is an internationalist at heart, he canceled the pipeline agreement on his first day as president, demonstrating his intention of spending American taxes on the American people, thereby creating opportunities for their businesses. The cabinet members chosen by President Biden have great expertise and a common vision. Good ideas are shared quickly, and there is a sense of accountability and knowledge of how the political system works. With his longtime spent in public office, President Biden has the insight on dealing with the American political system. Additionally, the US is now taking climate change more seriously into account through an increase of strategic documentation on the issue.
Furthermore, since the inherent logic of Canada’s economy is to export to the US, Lt-Gen Leslie stated that the US would continue to remain heavily dependent on Canadian imports and, more precisely, on clean energy and hydrocarbons. Canada is close to the US as we have a commonality of standards, culture, language, geography, and much more.
More broadly, the US, Canada, and Mexico have a relatively integrated supply chain that can provide prosperity. In addition, China is seeking long-term contracts for natural resources. Lt-Gen Leslie suggests we must be wary of China and therefore should have a long-term view as natural resources are a strategic risk long-term to the nation.
When discussing the competition between the US and China, Lt-Gen Leslie explained how Canada should position itself. The US is and remains our closest friend and ally. He emphasized that Canada is a sovereign nation, and, as such, can provide an interface between the US and China. Moreover, the Arctic was also a source of interrogation. Indeed, the Chinese are keenly aware of its strategic value and are willing to invest in its exploration by building icebreakers. As strategic interest in the region increases, so may tensions on this subject. As such, it is preferable for Canadians to work with the Americans rather than the Chinese and Russians on these issues as Americans are closer culturally.
To increase its influence in Washington, Canada should do more for collective defence through NORAD and NATO. The general goal is to contribute to a safe trade environment by contributing to international peace and stability. Therefore, both the modernization of the military and contributing equitably to NORAD are necessary. However, Canada does need to remain vigilant about protecting its citizens and their interests. Even though Canada and the US have aligned cultures and overlaps, they remain two separate, sovereign nations. Canada needs to ensure that this cooperation does have a return value for Canadians.
Lastly, regarding COVID-19, the US and Canada each have their own interests. The US has handled the vaccination of its citizens well, evidenced by the large number of vaccines given to the population daily. Canada has not done as well, for significant amounts of vaccines are still needed to properly vaccinate the population. In this instance, the US will not give their vaccines to their closest ally, Canada. Given that a pandemic is likely to happen again, Lt-Gen Leslie emphasized the need to pay attention to how Canada’s leaders are trying to solve the vaccine problem in order to avoid starting over.
To conclude, Lt-Gen Leslie’s conference was very insightful as to understanding the nature of the Canada – US relationship today. The most significant challenges both countries face are the modernization of the defence arsenal, the question of the rise of China and its impact, and finally dealing with the COVID-19 crisis.