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Coordinating with Canada on Foreign Policy

Richard Sanders

Canada's federal election poses an opportunity to reorient the country's foreign policy. Global Fellow Richard Sanders writes on the importance of U.S. coordination with Canada's new Parliament in an era of new international security threats and a changed geopolitical landscape.

Whatever the composition of the government which emerges from Canada’s September 20 election, the U.S. will need to intensify coordination on foreign policy. The relationship has firm foundations regardless of which party will govern, as our countries share membership in NATO, NORAD, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement and a range of other accords and have vast interchange at the human level. Nonetheless, despite many shared values and a long history of working together, if the United States hopes to see Canada as an active and engaged partner on global issues which it considers important, some rebuilding will be needed.

The ties that support foreign policy coordination have frayed in recent years. President Trump, aggressively unilateralist in both rhetoric and practice, was unpopular in Canada. He and his staff also seemed to hold Prime Minister Trudeau in especial contempt. While Canadians may have felt more comfortable with Trump’s successor, the COVID pandemic has left Canada, like other countries, looking inward right now. Also, the painful departure of American forces from Afghanistan casts a pall. Although Canada had withdrawn combat forces by 2014, the collapse of the Afghan government can only leave a sour taste in the mouths of many Canadians.

How can the U.S. reinvigorate the foreign policy relationship and thus have a greater chance gaining a positive response from Canada when its support is sought on some initiative? The first task is to do no harm. Purely bilateral issues can have a negative impact on the overall relationship. By the end of the Harper government it seemed as if the Keystone Pipeline was the only subject of interest between the two countries (this aside from any evaluation of its intrinsic merits). If the U.S. ignores Canadian concerns on a major issue, for example, if “buy American” requirements prove to be overly burdensome as the U.S. ramps up infrastructure spending, there could be some ill will that spills over into the broader foreign policy arena.


Aside from avoiding “own goals,” what can the U.S. do?  Frequent, extensive consultation is a prerequisite, both at the political, senior bureaucratic and subject matter expert level. This should take among the offices of national security advisors, foreign ministries, defense ministries and intelligence services. Some has already begun as the Biden administration seeks to repair damage done under its predecessor.


And as consultations take place, the U.S. should look for areas where Canada has particular interest and may be inclined to want to work together. As it seeks to manage the fallout from the Afghanistan withdrawal, the U.S. should recognize that Canada’s commitment there (and the 158 lives it lost) entitle it to a seat at the table as policies are devised. If the Biden administration decides to move off of Trump-era policies regarding Cuba, it may want to take advantage of Canada’s capacity to be quietly helpful, as did the Obama administration.

Dealing with Russia and China present the great foreign policy challenges of the foreseeable future. As regards the former, Canada has some modest “skin in the game,” supporting NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence mission in the Baltic states and providing some military assistance to the Ukraine. As for China, Canada is bedeviled by the imprisonment of two of its citizens, even as it, like other countries, seeks to address China’s increasingly aggressive international stance.  In both cases, a fluid exchange of information, analysis and policy proposals seems eminently sensible.

In engaging with Canada realism is required. Canada’s population is one tenth the size of the U.S., and its armed forces are proportionally even smaller.  Like many smaller countries, it is most comfortable acting multilaterally. It often manifests a tendency to study issues indefinitely rather than give a clear yes or no answer to a request. (The list of Canadian grievances regarding the U.S. approach to foreign affairs could be equally pointed, of course.) But a new government in Ottawa, with a longer post-election time horizon, could provide an opportunity that the U.S. ought not to miss.

About the Author

Richard Sanders

Richard Sanders

Global Fellow;
Former member of the Senior Foreign Service of the U.S. Department of State
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Canada Institute

Bound by common geopolitical interests and strong economic and cultural ties, Canada and the United States enjoy the world's most successful bilateral relationship. The Wilson Center's Canada Institute is the only public policy forum in the world dedicated to the full spectrum of Canada-U.S. issues. The Canada Institute is a global leader for policymakers, academics and business leaders to engage in non-partisan, informed dialogue about the current and future state of the relationship.     Read more