WASHINGTON – President Biden met by video conference with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada on Tuesday, attempting in his first virtual meeting with a foreign leader to restore a sense of normalcy in a grassroots relationship abruptly disrupted by the former president Donald J. Trump.
Mr. Trump has often referred to America’s northern neighbor, a close ally and key trading partner, as an economic predator, and has insulted Mr. Trudeau as being “two-sided,” “weak” and “dishonest”. Tuesday’s tone couldn’t have been more different.
“The United States has no closer friend than Canada,” Biden told Trudeau just before their meeting. “We are all best served when the United States and Canada work together and lead together.”
“American leadership has been sorely missed in recent years,” replied Trudeau.
Diplomatically, the meeting was a bit stilted affair and a reminder of the persistence of the coronavirus. Ordinarily, Mr. Biden would have greeted Mr. Trudeau in the Oval Office, where cameras would have captured them sitting next to each other in a classic Washington painting.
Instead, Mr. Biden sat at the head of a long wooden table in the Roosevelt Room of the White House and interacted with a two-dimensional Mr. Trudeau, who appeared on a television screen. about 20 feet away. He was accompanied by Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.
Even through a distant screen, however, Mr. Trudeau was clearly relieved to be in the virtual presence of a new U.S. president after the havoc Mr. Trump wreaked on one of the world’s most placid cross-border relations.
In addition to demeaning Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Trump has imposed a 10% tariff on Canadian aluminum imports. “Canada was taking advantage of us, as usual,” Mr. Trump said when he renewed the rate in August.
“It’s so great to see you again, Joe,” Trudeau said on Tuesday, adding that he was “really delighted” to be working again with the United States on climate change, a top priority for the Canadian leader. as well as for Mr. Biden.
Despite a significant generational gap – Mr. Biden is almost 30 years older than Mr. Trudeau, who is 49 – the two leaders are natural partners with similar political agendas. Mr. Trudeau was the first foreign leader to call Mr. Biden in November with congratulations on his electoral victory, and the first one Mr. Biden called after he was sworn in last month.
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After their meeting, Mr. Biden and Mr. Trudeau made statements from the East Room of the White House, where, by tradition, they had held a brief press conference, each answering two questions. In this case, Mr. Biden spoke from a lectern next to another video screen showing Mr. Trudeau, and the men did not answer questions.
In their statements, Mr. Biden and Mr. Trudeau said they would cooperate not only on climate change but also on the coronavirus, as well as restoring their respective economies and tackling racial discrimination.
Mr. Biden also said that closer cooperation would allow the United States and Canada to compete more effectively with China. And he called on Beijing to release two Canadian men who were detained in China for more than two years during what was widely seen as retribution for Canada’s 2018 detention of a prominent Chinese tech executive at the behest of U.S. prosecutors. “Human beings don’t barter chips,” he says.
In his remarks ahead of their meeting, Biden also said he viewed Mr. Trudeau as an ally in his efforts to resurrect the strength and image of democracy in the world.
“As leaders of great democracies, we have a responsibility to prove that democracy can still be good for our people,” Biden said, in an implicit reference to countries like Russia and China. “There are a lot of leaders in the world who are trying to make the autocracy argument work better.”
But the relationship between the United States and Canada is not without its problems. On his first day in office, Mr. Biden signed an executive order the cancellation of a Calgary company’s building permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, a victory for environmental activists who Trudeau said left him “disappointed.” American dairy farmers are also opposed to price and supply controls in Canada which they say have benefited and disadvantaged their counterparts.
Canada also imposes tariffs on imports of US dairy products, a practice Mr. Trump called “shameful.”
But on Tuesday, such belligerence seemed a thing of the past. Amid the discussions of the hard work ahead, there was a tone of courtesy and even levity. After Mr. Trudeau at one point switched to French, Mr. Biden made a self-deprecating remark about his own language skills.
“I told you, Mr. Prime Minister, I took five years of French at school and college,” he said, adding that “every time I tried to speak it, I learned to speak it. was ridiculing so much, I stopped trying. “
“At least when I try Spanish and make a fool of myself, they laugh along with me,” Mr. Biden said.
In his closing remarks, Mr Biden – a well-known tactile and relationship-oriented politician – seemed to acknowledge the sterility and awkwardness of an important meeting conducted through a screen.
“I can’t wait to see when we can meet in person,” he said. Moments later, Mr. Biden bade farewell to his French-speaking counterpart with a passable, if not very common, “goodbye”.