OTTAWA, Ontario — Joe Biden arrives in Canada this week for his first presidential visit here as the two countries look to demonstrate unity and resolve in the face of growing threats from China, Russia and the world’s autocracies.
Plenty of issues divide the North American neighbors. The Biden administration wants Canada to spend more money to upgrade the NORAD early-warning system, whose vulnerabilities were exposed when a Chinese spy balloon crossed into both countries this year. The U.S. would also like Canada to assume a leadership role in stabilizing Haiti, a cauldron of gang violence and political instability.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wants help from the Biden administration in stanching the flow of migrants entering the country from the U.S. and claiming asylum.
Neither leader is expected to labor the outstanding differences — at least not publicly. A basic purpose of the trip lies in is its timing and its symbolism, on the heels of a different summit meeting a world away, analysts said.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, met in Moscow this week to discuss the war in Ukraine and showcase the growing ties between two powers opposed to Western-style democratic governance.
Biden’s speech Friday before the Canadian Parliament and his face-to-face meetings with Trudeau will serve as visual counterpoints to the Xi-Putin summit, showing two Western leaders working cooperatively to uphold democratic norms, analysts said.
“We’re going to talk about our two democracies’ stepping up to meet the challenges of our time,” John Kirby, a White House National Security Council spokesman, said in the run-up to the trip. “That includes taking concrete steps to increase defense spending, drive a global race to the top on clean energy and build prosperous and inclusive economies.”
An early ambition of the Biden administration was to repair relations between the U.S. and Canada, which had soured under President Donald Trump, who called Trudeau “very dishonest and weak” after an international summit meeting in Canada in 2018. The next year, Trump called Trudeau “two-faced” after Trudeau was caught on a hot mic appearing to belittle him in a conversation with other world leaders.
David L. Cohen, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, said in an interview this year: “There’s been a real recovery in the trust of the relationship. It’s not all there yet, and the fear has shifted a little bit.”
Before the midterm elections in November, Cohen said he would hear from Canadians, “‘OK, it’s pretty good now, but that’s because of Joe Biden. What happens if Trump comes back, and what happens if there’s a terrible outcome in the midterms?’” (Democrats retained control of the Senate in the midterms, but Republicans won a small majority in the House. Trump is running for another term.)
National security looms as a key issue in the dinners and the face-to-face meetings between Biden and Trudeau. The NORAD system, used to detect enemy missile launches and safeguard North America from attack, is woefully outdated, some foreign policy experts said.
Canada has agreed to spend nearly $5 billion in the coming years to help modernize the system, but the U.S. would like to see a bigger commitment, analysts said.
“We knew we had to modernize NORAD” before the spy balloon episode, said a former national security adviser to Trudeau, Vincent Rigby, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s 1970s and ’80s technology. It needs to be updated so we can pick up missiles far out in the distance.”
Canada’s expenditure thus far “is not going to be enough,” he added. “Canada will have to put more money on the table. And the U.S. wants Canada to put that money on the table soon, and they want to move faster on NORAD modernization. That’s a message that the president may well want to convey to the prime minister.”
Focused on Russia's invasion of Ukraine and China's growing influence on the world stage, the U.S. wants Canada to step in and help end a human catastrophe unfolding in the Caribbean. Haiti is at risk of becoming a failed state. Kidnappings, murders and rapes have been rising as the country reels from gang violence.
Trudeau, however, has been reluctant to deploy troops and bolster the Haitian government. Canada is already “elbows deep” in trying to assist Haiti, he said last month. It has sent two naval ships to Haiti — a gesture that falls short of the U.S.- or Canadian-led military intervention that Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry has requested.
"I’m hopeful that Canada will be able to step in and take some leadership in Haiti, because that will matter in Washington,” Gordon Giffin, a former U.S. ambassador to Canada, said at a news briefing. “Taking that one off of our menu would be a big help to the U.S. administration.”
Other issues likely to come up present opportunities for mutual economic gain. The U.S., for example, can offer Canada financing that would help extract critical minerals needed to build electric vehicles, analysts said. Tapping Canada's mineral deposits would help ease global warming and free the U.S. from relying on its superpower rival China, they added.
Often a president makes Canada the destination of his first foreign trip. Now in the back half of his term, Biden couldn't afford to wait much longer, analysts said.
"The world is a pretty scary place at the moment," Rigby said. "And the United States is looking for allies to help them manage this world and respond to these various threats."