By Ana Radelat
WASHINGTON — The diplomatic skills of Sen. Amy Klobuchar are getting a workout as the United States resets its relationship with its neighbor to the north.
Klobuchar, D-Minn., has for years co-chaired the Canada-U.S. Interparliamentary Group, which has American Democratic and Republican lawmakers as its members, as well as Canadian Liberal and Conservative legislators.
The goal is to keep the alliance between the United States and Canada as strong as possible and try to hash out disputes over trade and other issues, or at least keep avenues of communications open.
Those efforts were thwarted by the pandemic, which shuttered the U.S.-Canadian border and prevented the members of the interparliamentary group from meeting in person, as they did this week in Washington, D.C.
“Through the pandemic there was a bit of a slumber there,” Klobuchar said of official interactions.
President Trump’s divisive policies also alienated many Canadians, including both Liberal and Conservative members of the Canadian parliament, who were united in their derision of the former president.
The Pew Research Center found that the number of Canadians who favorably viewed the United States fell from 68% in 2015 to 43% in 2017, and then again to 39% in 2018, the lowest ever gauge of support.
But on Tuesday, Canadian Conservative Party Sen. Michael McDonald said the level of re-engagement “is palpable.”
“And the way the world is evolving, our relationship is more important now,” McDonald said.
McDonald, and John McKay, a Liberal member of the Canadian Parliament, are the two Canadian co-chairs of the interparliamentary group.
They, and six other Canadian legislators, had dinner with their U.S. counterparts and visited Capitol Hill offices this week.
McKay said he agreed with President Biden, who met with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in March, that the relationship between the allies “is at an inflection point.”
“Nobody is closer to the United States than we are,” he said.
To Klobuchar, who was invited by Trudeau to the state dinner the prime minister held in honor of Biden’s visit, U.S.-Canadian relations are also Minnesota-Canadian relations.
The state does billions of dollars in trade with Canada, its citizens buy cheaper prescription drugs and sometimes obtain health care across the northern border and there’s a shared passion for hockey and other things. There are also cross-border frictions that impact Minnesota, including trade disputes over dairy and lumber. Meanwhile, Canadians were resentful over Trump-era tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum.
And even before Trump was in the White House, Canada did not always walk in lock-step with the United States, refusing to participate in the Second Gulf War and announcing that decision without giving then-U.S. president George W. Bush prior notice.
Yet Canada is now firmly an important part of a U.S.-led coalition to aid Ukraine and continues to be a prime trading partner. About 75% of Canadian exports go to the United States. And the United States exports more than $700 billion worth of goods and services to Canada each year.
Klobuchar said the interparliamentary group is key to avoiding conflicts that “fester,” and her role in the organization “is one of my more fun assignments.”
Minnesota’s senior senator said she helped promote the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which in 2020 replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement, after Canada balked at several provisions.
She said she went with former Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, a former U.S. trade representative to the Canadian embassy “to push them back to the table.”
Klobuchar also said she was involved in diplomatic efforts concerning Canada when there was a holdup in the Senate in confirming a U.S. ambassador to Ottawa during the Obama administration.
“I was almost the de facto ambassador,” she said.
And during the difficult Trump years, the interparliamentary group gave Canadians “inroads to Congress,” and presumably sympathetic ears.
“Now the relations have improved,” Klobuchar said.
Still, there are Canadian concerns with the U.S. political system.
Last month, during a visit to New York, Trudeau said he was worried about the future of American democracy, taking a jab at Trump.
“You guys are the greatest democracy in the world,” Trudeau said. “Right now, it’s not just that it’s being taken for granted by so many citizens, it’s actually being devalued.”
Tim Lindberg, political science professor at the University of Minnesota-Morris, said Klobuchar is right to establish ties with Canada since Minnesota shares a border, and many interests, with its neighbor.
Klobuchar’s foray into the world of diplomatic relations would also help her if she chooses to run for president again, or wants to leave the Senate to join a future Democratic administration’s cabinet or diplomatic corps.
“It is a way her to show ‘I can do this,’” Lindberg said.