Professor Nicolas Lamp

With the Biden inauguration dominating international news, six Queen’s Law experts are stating their predictions for how the new government will have an impact on Canada and across the globe. In today’s feature of the six-part series, Professor Nicolas Lamp examines trade policy. 

Predictability to increase, but change in substance is questionable

On trade policy, there is no question that there will be a change in style; to what extent there will also be a change in substance is a much more complicated question. In one respect, a change in style definitely has substantive benefits: U.S. trade policy will become more predictable. Canadian trade officials will no longer have to fear that they will wake up to the news that Canada’s largest trading partner is imposing tariffs on Canadian products on national security grounds, as the Trump administration did with Canadian steel and aluminum. 

One reason to be skeptical that much will change for Canadian traders is that they have actually fared pretty well under the Trump administration. Canadian officials successfully lobbied to have the steel and aluminum tariffs removed, even as they remained in place on other U.S. allies. And the revised NAFTA agreement – known as the CUSMA in Canada and the USMCA in the United States – has provided certainty to U.S.-Canadian trade and may have even brought new benefits for Canadian workers: some credit the recent wave of announcements of new investments in auto manufacturing in Ontario to the agreement’s revised rules. 

Another reason to be skeptical that a Biden administration will fundamentally change the course of U.S. trade policy is that many of the Trump administration’s policies enjoy broad bipartisan support. In December, Canada became the target of the first-ever suit under the CUSMA, when the Trump administration challenged the way Canada allocates quotas for dairy products from the U.S.; there is little reason to think that a Biden administration will abandon that legal challenge. And while a Biden administration will be more sympathetic to the World Trade Organization, skepticism of the organization’s dispute settlement system has deep bipartisan roots in the U.S. Canada’s preference would be to achieve a quick reform to resurrect the system, which the Trump administration has sabotaged, but that is far from guaranteed. 

In two other areas there is more prospect for change: the Biden administration will take a more multilateral approach to addressing China, which would provide Canada with much-needed backup in its own disputes with the Asian giant, but also draw Canada even more deeply into the broader confrontation between the two superpowers. And tackling the climate crisis looks likely to be front-and-centre for the Biden administration in all policy areas, including trade relations. If Biden’s announcement that he will cancel the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline on his first day in office is any indication, this means that Canada will have to step up its game in transitioning to a low-carbon economy as well.

Professor Nicolas Lamp specializes in international trade law and policy. He is the Academic Director of Queen’s International Law Programs at the Bader International Study Centre, Director of the Annual Queen’s Institute on Trade Policy, and previously worked as a Dispute Settlement Lawyer at the World Trade Organization’s Appellate Body Secretariat. His co-authored book (with Anthea Roberts), Winners and Losers: Narratives about Economic Globalization (Harvard University Press), is forthcoming in October.