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Could Biden’s Use of Sanctions Affect U.S.-Canada Relationship?

May 10, 2021 by Kate Michael
President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken listen as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a virtual bilateral meeting, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON — While much has been studied about President Biden’s first 100 days in office, most of that analysis has focused on how the administration’s actions impact American citizens or relationships with the world’s other great powers, but many wonder about how early actions will affect America’s strong ally immediately North. 

In truth, Biden began his term calling for revitalizing TransAtlantic relations and uniting global democracies, but while he has pushed for a stronger national economy and a U.S. foreign policy renaissance, many of his policies and actions in the first 100 days have also placed economic and political pressures on America’s allies, with some challenges particularly affecting Canada. 

“We’re entering a different era in part driven by geopolitics in which economic as well as security and military instruments are now being used to advance national agendas and, essentially, not only are they targeting adversaries, but they’re also implicating allies indirectly and directly in those kinds of endeavors,” said David Carment, Professor at Ontario’s Carleton University. 

Carment, along with doctoral fellow and Ph.D. candidate Dani Belo, has been studying the challenges and opportunities of contemporary politics of the world’s small and middle powers in an area they call “gray-zone conflict,” and shared their findings and observations at a discussion at the Wilson Center last week. 

According to Carment and Belo, a ‘gray-zone conflict’ is a conflict format that falls short of absolute open warfare. Using tools and tactics to leverage global change and form international relations around a nation’s priorities, like imposing sanctions, makes these conflicts generally more protracted in nature, taking place over many years with incremental actions. These conflicts are often resistant to decisive resolution, but economic pressures exert influence over both opponents and allies, shaping relationships with small and middle-size powers, like Canada.

“The current conflict environment is dominated by gray-zone phenomenon which overshadow conventional tools used by the military,” said Belo. 

He and Carment suggest that unilateralism and “hidden agendas in which the interactions between states belie underlying core interests and values” are causing small and middle powers to become a battleground in political livelihood and could impact the future of Canadian-U.S relations.

“Within the context of gray-zone conflict, Canada’s relationship with the U.S. is largely driven by the rivalry between China and the United States,” said Belo, reminding the audience that Canada’s economy is almost wholly dependent on trade, and any external pressures on it have a serious effect on Canadian foreign policy. 

“Canada wants and needs trade with China, but in the defense domain [on the other hand], there’s a clear message… delink and delink now because China represents a major risk to Canadian interests,” added Carment.

Carment portends that Canada’s perspective on foreign policy after the Biden Administration’s first 100 days is an incursion of American interests on Canadian foreign policy in which Canada has experienced “internal political dualism” — or fracturing of the internal political environment — and may end up with Canada hedging its bets, or “cooperat[ing] across different sectors of power to maximize political power.”

He argued that America’s increasing use of sanctions as a foreign policy tool is “very controversial” and could end up being counterproductive to developing a values-driven alliance structure as these sanctions have the potential to do great harm against allies, including Canada. 

“The bigger picture here is the continued possible increasing use of extraterritorial measures in pursuit of [American] self-interest… which is worrisome for Canada and other middle powers,” said Carment.

“I’m the outlier,” said Carment. “The relationship between Canada and the U.S. is rock solid, and very few people are making the assumptions that [I am] making. But I think they still need to be made to bring some reality, or ground this argument in something substantive in nature.”

Lindsay Rodman, Executive Director of the Leadership Council for Women in National Security, agrees that gaining a broader understanding of the impact American decisions might be having, even in unanticipated areas, on American allies is important. She doubts, however, that perceptions about the current Administration’s early actions would truly affect the nation’s alliances.  

“It would be really surprising if Canada were really hemming and hawing about where their loyalty lies between the U.S and China,” said Rodman.

“I imagine that it is… surprising from the American perspective to hear a heartfelt Canadian strong reaction to [America’s] actions overseas. But that is the big overarching takeaway — that when Americans are… engaging in Nord Stream 2, or deciding about the future of a conflict in Iraq, or the future of our Iranian relationship… old and trusted allies… are going to have a reaction to it and we should be mindful.”

Still, she insisted that sanctions are “chosen deliberately as diplomatic efforts that have nothing to do with conflict, [and the] notion that they might be perceived nonetheless as being somewhere on a conflict continuum is… important for us to reconcile.”

Carment insisted that to most countries, Canada included, “economic development trumps democratization,” and that despite Biden’s early actions to create values-driven alliances, foreign policy decisions couldn’t be made just about values, but must also take national interests into consideration.

“We have a different America we’re working with right now. It’s an inward-looking nation,” said Carment. “The real test of Joe Biden’s presidency will be whether he re-calibrates and rethinks how the U.S. is engaging in actions that have potential harm for allies.”

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