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For Canada-U.S., close personal ties between leaders not necessary — but they help

WASHINGTON — Hollywood has Ben and Jennifer. Music fans have Beyoncé and Jay-Z. But in Canadian politics right now, it's all about Justin and Joe.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with U.S. President Joe Biden at the InterContinental Presidente Mexico City hotel in Mexico City, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023. There's palpable affection between the two leaders, and those who know say it's authentic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

WASHINGTON — Hollywood has Ben and Jennifer. Music fans have Beyoncé and Jay-Z. But in Canadian politics right now, it's all about Justin and Joe. 

OK, so maybe Justin Trudeau and Joe Biden don't capture the North American zeitgeist like a glitzy celebrity couple. But there's palpable affection between the prime minister and the U.S. president — and those who know say it's authentic. 

"They relax around each other, and there is a warmth between them," said Kirsten Hillman, Canada's ambassador to the U.S. 

"They laugh quite a bit, but they also are both sincerely interested in working through, with each other, the big issues facing our two countries and the world."

That warmth will be on full display Friday when the two leaders officially greet each other on the steps of Parliament Hill for the most public-facing portion of Biden's first trip to Canada since taking office in 2021. 

It's a short visit — just over 24 hours long — and about two years late, according to the mythology of Canada-U.S. relations, which holds that new commanders-in-chief traditionally head north for their first foreign trip. 

Blame the COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing war in Ukraine and Biden's own ill-timed positive test for the virus last summer for the holdup — not the state of the bilateral relationship, experts say. 

"It's a little bit of lore, not really history, that American presidents have gone to Canada early in their tenure," said Gordon Giffin, who served as envoy to Ottawa during Bill Clinton's second term. 

"The American president oftentimes is addressing challenges in the early part of their tenure, not opportunities. Dealing with Canada is not a challenge. It is replete with opportunities. And so it doesn't require an immediate fire drill to address."

What is valuable, Giffin added, is two leaders who like each other and are conversant enough in each other's priorities to be able to go off-script and have a more free-wheeling discussion than their talking points alone allow. 

That is decidedly the case with these two, Hillman said: "They will take their conversations where they want them to go, not just where they have been briefed to go." 

Officials from both countries who took part in planning for the visit said separately that the White House made clear the president wanted to spend as much time with Trudeau as possible while in town.  

In a background briefing Wednesday,  senior administration officials pointed to Biden's last trip to Ottawa, in the final weeks of former president Barack Obama's time in the White House, as a key point in his relationship with Trudeau.

"There are periods where the number of genuine leaders on continents are in short supply," Biden, who was vice-president at the time, told Trudeau back in December 2016, just weeks before Donald Trump's inauguration. 

"The world is going to spend a lot of time looking to you, Mr. Prime Minister, as we see more and more challenges to the liberal international order than any time since the end of World War Two." 

Despite the clear generation gap — Biden is 80, Trudeau is 51 — the two leaders have a lot in common, said Jonathan Wood, a principal at the D.C.-based consulting firm Control Risks who specializes in geopolitics in the Americas. 

"They see the world through similar eyes," Wood said.  

"I think they approach the leading geopolitical issues of our time from a similar standpoint and in a similar fashion, which is to say a commitment to ... the rules-based world order, to liberal democratic principles and to multilateral alignment and co-ordination."

That's in part due to the fact that both leaders have been defined to a degree by the Trump years — Trudeau through navigating ties with an unpredictable, mercurial and combative administration, Biden by his efforts to rebuild bridges burned by his predecessor. 

In particular, the two leaders share a concerted interest in confronting climate change, a challenge that factors into virtually every one of the major policy initiatives their governments have embarked on in recent years. 

And with the decision just last week to greenlight the controversial Willow oil and gas megaproject in Alaska, Biden had to confront an uncomfortable truth Trudeau knows all too well: balancing climate priorities with the real-world, present-day demand for fossil fuels.  

The relationship between not only the two leaders, but also the two countries, has been fortified over the last year by the unyielding solidarity Canada has shown with the U.S. over supporting Ukraine in its fight against Russia, Wood added. 

"The personal relations are important, but they don't necessarily determine what is a very robust, intensive, all-spectrum partnership between the U.S. and Canada," he said. 

Those ties "have probably only been strengthened by their shared experience of the conflict in Ukraine over the last year." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 23, 2023.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press