international analysis and commentary

What a second Trudeau term could mean for US-Canada relations


Canadian voters have returned Justin Trudeau to the leadership of the US’s northern neighbour, while the US political system continues to spiral towards a presidential impeachment and what promises to be a truly ugly electoral campaign. In short, the space for major progress on issues of concern to the US-Canadian relationship is small and shrinking. Given that environment, simply keeping a steady hand on the tiller might be the best that can be reasonably hoped for.

In an era where elections and referenda have produced a number of notable surprises, Canada’s election on 21 October went pretty much as expected. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party won the largest number of seats but lost their overall majority in Parliament. Thanks to Canada’s first-past-the-post, multi-party system, the total number of votes cast for a party doesn’t necessarily translate into an equivalent number of seats. The upshot in this case was that Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives got more than 200,000 more votes than Trudeau’s Liberals, but ended up with only 121 seats against 157 for their rivals. Trudeau’s shine was dented by the SNC-Lavalin scandal and a late-campaign revelation that he had repeatedly worn blackface in the past, but those issues were insufficient to change the outcome.

One certain impact is that Trudeau’s new government will be less empowered than the one he headed since 2015. He will depend on a combination of the leftist New Democratic Party (NDP), the separatist Bloc Quebecois and a smattering of Green and independent MPs to pass legislation. This is more difficult than it might at first appear – the Bloc is now the third-biggest party in Parliament, but their support for Quebecois independence limits the degree to which national parties can be seen to partner with them. Meanwhile, the NDP actually lost more than a third of its seats in the election (mostly to the Bloc); a partnership with them risks throwing a lifeline to a party whose loss might be the Liberals’ gain in the next election.


North American politics

As in most countries’ elections, domestic politics in Canada tend to dominate during election campaigns. But foreign policy – and especially Canada’s relationship with the superpower on its southern border – is affected by the makeup of the Canadian government.

Canada and the US share the longest international border between two countries


The biggest issue in Canadian/American relations right now is the successor to the NAFTA free trade pact between the US, Mexico and Canada, called USMCA in the US and CUSMA in Canada. The agreement was signed by the three governments at the end of 2018, but has not yet been ratified by any of the participant nations (although it has passed the Mexican Senate).

In theory, President Trump’s hostility to trade agreements might work in favour of USMCA/CUSMA’s ratification. His open hostility to NAFTA underlines the threat that he might pull out of North American free trade agreements entirely should the new agreement fail. There are a number of complications, not least the enormous (if asymmetrically distributed) economic damage that could be inflicted if NAFTA fell apart, and the complex legal and practical questions of what would happen if the President unilaterally withdrew from a trade agreement but Congress declined to rescind the enabling legislation.

Furthermore, on the US side, the politics are nothing if not complicated. President Trump is facing a rapidly-accelerating investigation into his attempt to leverage American aid to Ukraine in exchange for an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, who is running against him in next year’s presidential election. That enquiry is being run by the Democrats in the House of Representatives, who would also have to vote to ratify USMCA (che successor to NAFTA), handing Trump a political victory in an election year. But by the same token, if Trump were to follow through with his threat to withdraw from NAFTA, he would be inflicting terrible damage on the US economy whose strong performance is probably his greatest political asset. If the Democrats think that Trump’s threat to blow up NAFTA simply isn’t practical under the circumstances, they are likely to slow-roll the USMCA’s ratification on the now relatively safe assumption that neither Canada nor Mexico will get cold feet in the next year and a half.


What now?

Trudeau is, at least, a known quantity in the United States. Despite politics more closely aligned with the Democratic than Republican party, and an evidently chummy relationship with Barack Obama, Trudeau has managed his personal relationship with his volatile and reactionary American counterpart well. In the wake of the election results, Trump issued a congratulatory Tweet to Trudeau notable for its lack of implicit or explicit insult. And since Trudeau is not the obstacle to USMCA entering into force at this point, he is not first in line for Trump’s wrath – although, on the basis of precedent, that wrath does not necessarily assign itself logically.

But beyond the trade issue, there is probably little room for progress in bilateral relations between now and the beginning of a new American presidential term. Trudeau’s  government will continue to gently push the US on various human rights issues (especially around Saudi Arabia and China) and productive engagement in multilateral instruments, and the Trump administration will continue to ungently ignore those calls.

Of course, barring a no-confidence vote, Trudeau’s new term will carry him well past January 2021, when he’ll be faced with either a new American president or a re-elected Donald Trump. If it’s Donald Trump, USMCA/CUSMA will probably end up being enacted one way or another, while the US and Canada simply continue to drift apart on bigger questions of values and geopolitical approaches. But if a president from an increasingly economically-populist Democratic Party takes the oath of office, Trudeau’s government will find itself with a very different set of problems: a US which is suddenly much more amenable on multilateral issues but will take an even harder look at trade. That result might make Canada’s big foreign policy goals more achievable, but at the cost of significantly complicating its domestic politics.