When President Joe Biden welcomed his Canadian counterpart to the White House on Tuesday to “reinvigorate” a cross-border relationship strained under his predecessor, he did so by addressing a large television monitor.
“The sooner we get this pandemic under control the better, and I look forward to seeing you in person in the future,” he told Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose masked visage was looming over Biden’s shoulder on one monitor and facing him from another one at the end of a long conference table in the Roosevelt Room.
In-person visits from foreign leaders are still off-limits as the novel coronavirus continues to rage, forcing the White House to replicate the traditional choreography of a bilateral meeting without the physical presence of another foreign leader.
On Tuesday, there wasn’t a handshake or a working lunch. But there were opening remarks and a photo-op of the men speaking to each other on screens, flanked by members of their Cabinets. The White House positioned US and Canadian flags behind the President.
Later, Biden delivered a statement from the East Room, where presidents usually take their foreign leaders for a joint news conference. Trudeau was beamed in on an oversized monitor.
Biden's First 100 Days
“US leadership has been sorely missed over the past years,” Trudeau said from his office in Ottawa, specifically referring to the climate crisis but voicing the relief many traditional allies now feel after a tumultuous four years of dealing with President Donald Trump. He added he was pleased the US was no longer “pulling out all references to climate change and instead adding them in” into joint statements.
It was an upbeat opening to a meeting intended to produce a “road map” for reinvigorating collaboration between the two countries that will guide areas such as climate change and the economy. Administration officials characterized the result as superior to the static joint statement or communiqué that is the usual result of a bilateral meeting.
Sticky issues of cross-border trade were still expected to arise. And ahead of the meeting, the White House signaled Biden’s unwillingness to back off his stance on the Keystone XL pipeline or a “Buy American” measure, both of which Canada has protested. Nor was he likely to offer an assurances about allowing US-made vaccines to cross into Canada.
Still, as the meeting began there was little sign of the animosity that pervaded the relationship under Trump.
“The United States has no closer friend – no closer friend – than Canada,” Biden said, speaking loudly through a mask so a microphone could pick up his remarks. “Our channels of communication are wide open.”
“We’re all best served when the United States and Canada work together and lead together,” he added.
In their statements later, each man affirmed his willingness to work with the other on expected issues such as climate and the pandemic, without mentioning the areas they disagree. Biden also mentioned working on stamping out systemic racism and unconscious bias, issues traditionally viewed as domestic matters but which Trudeau has voiced a desire to combat.
“Thank you, Justin,” Biden said as his first extended engagement with a foreign leader ended. “Au revoir.”
Virtual meetings in a pandemic world
The remote meeting is not necessarily how Biden, who puts a premium on cultivating personal relationships with foreign counterparts, might prefer to conduct his debut bilateral engagement. But with the US-Canada border still closed and the administration intent on modeling its own pandemic guidance, the virtual meeting will have to do.
The notion of meeting remotely is hardly new for most Americans, who are about to enter a second year of video-calls and virtual get-togethers. But Trump had mostly ignored social distancing guidelines and continued welcoming foreign leaders amid the pandemic.
Trudeau’s was the first “virtual bilateral meeting” convened at the White House.
“The two leaders get along very well, have great rapport, so we wanted to create a smaller session so the two of them could really have that experience that they would normally have in the Oval,” a senior administration official said on Monday, previewing a meeting that was expected to center on the two countries’ economic ties, combating the pandemic and addressing climate change.
The pitfalls of a virtual diplomacy were on display last week when Group of 7 leaders met on a video call. The host, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, had to ask Chancellor Angela Merkel to mute her line when mumbling in German interrupted his opening remarks.
On Tuesday, there was some ambient background noise coming from Trudeau’s feed, but not enough to interrupt the proceedings.
Senior US administration officials said they wanted to elevate the Biden-Trudeau event into something more than just a high-level Zoom, preserving some of the optics and stateliness of an official visit from a foreign leader, even if the leader himself is sitting in another country almost 600 miles away.
“We’re really trying to innovate in the virtual space to make sure that we’re establishing that personal connection that the President enjoys with a lot of leaders, but then, of course, creating that environment for them to really roll up their sleeves and talk to these issues in detail as the President likes to do,” the official said.
Biden and Trudeau have already spoken by telephone and have known each other for years. One of Biden’s final trips as vice president was to attend a state dinner held in his honor in Ottawa; during his toast, Biden recounted the call he received from Trudeau’s father Pierre – then serving as prime minister himself – when his first wife and daughter died in a car accident.
The relationship between the two countries is not without its irritants. Trudeau expressed his disappointment that Biden was canceling the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport oil from Alberta across the US-Canada border. Officials said ahead of the meeting that the decision was final.
Trudeau is expected to press Biden on making more Covid-19 vaccines available for Canadians. Biden has not reversed a Trump-era executive order that blocks vaccine exports, meaning Canada is relying on Pfizer doses produced in Europe rather than those produced in neighboring Michigan. Officials said Biden was focused on “making sure every American is vaccinated” but wants to discuss ways of working together to combat the virus.
Canada also hopes Biden will make an exception for his “Buy American” provision that are meant to ensure US taxpayer dollars are spent on domestic companies rather than going abroad.
But by-and-large Biden and Trudeau are riding the same wave-length, at least compared to Trump, who enacted a combative trade agenda and personally insulted Trudeau on several occasions.
His sole trip to Canada, for a G7 summit in the northern woods of Quebec, ended abruptly and bitterly. As he flew away on Air Force One, he called Trudeau “very dishonest and weak” on Twitter and rescinded his signature from the meeting’s concluding document.
A frosty but businesslike relationship followed until 2019, when Trudeau was caught on camera gossiping about Trump with Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron and Britain’s Princess Anne during a reception at Buckingham Palace. Trump declared him “two-faced.”
That is not likely to occur Tuesday.
“Nearly priority of the Biden administration is one where we have value alignment and the space for collaboration with Canada,” an official said ahead of the talks. “We share one of the strongest and deepest friendships between any two countries in the world.”