President Joe Biden has a number of critical issues to discuss with his Canadian counterpart when he makes his first presidential visit to Ottawa, the White House says. These include national security concerns, climate change, trade, migration, the conflict in Ukraine and unrest in Haiti.
Biden was set to leave Thursday for a one-night visit to Canada’s capital, where he will meet with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and address parliament on Friday. While there, Biden will discuss “taking concrete steps to increase defense spending, driving a global race to the top on clean energy, and building prosperous and inclusive economies,” said John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council.
Analysts say the gravity of those issues underscores the importance of the close relationship between Washington and Ottawa — the two nations share the world’s longest undefended land border — but also how unbalanced the relationship is.
"It's a relationship that often does not get the attention and respect that it’s due,” said Earl Anthony Wayne, a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Argentina and Mexico.
Biden is only now visiting Ottawa as president, more than halfway through his term.
In Canada, “this is front-page news and has been for several weeks now — the expectation that President Biden would be coming to Canada,” said Louise Blais, Canada’s former ambassador to the United Nations.
“Whereas you compare that with the amount of coverage that the visit has received in the United States, it gives you a little bit of an idea of the asymmetrical aspect of the relationship. But that being said, it's a warm and positive relationship,” she said.
Gordon Giffin, a former U.S. ambassador to Canada, remarked on the packed agenda for the short visit.
“I think President Biden's visit must be three weeks, not two days, based on the menu of items that have been listed so far that, quote, ‘need to be addressed.’”
The White House said the key issue would be security — over North America’s skies through the joint North American Air Defense Command; in the Western Hemisphere amid instability in Haiti; and across the ocean in Europe and Asia.
On calls for a U.N. peacekeeping force in unstable Haiti, “I think that they will continue to talk about ways we can continue to support from a humanitarian assistance perspective, for the people of Haiti and Haitian national security forces,” Kirby said. “And as for a multinational force or anything like that, I, again, I don't want to get ahead of the conversation here.”
Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat and former head of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said he expected Biden to emphasize security contributions.
“My guess is the president is going to push us hard on defense and security,” he said. “We’ve committed under NATO to spend 2% of GDP [gross domestic product] on defense. Canada's only at 1.27%. And, yes, we've made some recent investments towards NATO modernization, but we're going to be expected to do a lot more.
“Our armed forces strength is 50% across the services — navy, army, air force — below capacity. The United States would like us to take a lead in Haiti. We just simply haven't got the capacity to do that. We are doing what we can in NATO, but NATO now is going to, I think, take a greater interest in the north because of pressures mostly from the Russians but also from the Chinese.”
The two nations are major trade partners, but Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, said Ottawa should seek closer ties, such as membership in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity.
“It doesn't make any sense for our top trade partner, our northern neighbor, not to be a party to this negotiation,” he said.
But, he added, movement in trade ties may take time.
“These issues aren't new,” he said. “They're not related to one U.S. administration or the other.”
The White House said the two leaders would also discuss clean energy, economic cooperation and more. Wayne said these deep and broad intersections are a key characteristic of this particular bilateral relationship.
“I often like to call it ‘intermestic,’ in that it’s international and domestic at the same time,” he said. “The issues are so important for both countries that they're debated domestically, but yet, by definition, they're international because it's between two countries.”