When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada goes to the White House on Monday, his greatest priority — and responsibility — will be forming an easy, effective rapport with Donald Trump.
If Trudeau can create chemistry with an unpredictable President whose agenda and ideas are different from his own, this flying visit will be a success. If they like each other, Trump will be more likely to accept the case for Canada as the most important friend of the United States, with a century and a half of shared history, geography and commerce.
Trudeau is trying to protect Canada from the harshest elements of Trump’s commitment to “America First”: his protectionist, nativist and semi-isolationist vision of the United States, which could be disastrous for Canada.
Young, optimistic and handsome, Trudeau is the son of celebrated former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Since he led his Liberal Party to a surprising win over the Conservatives in 2015, Trudeau’s “sunny ways” and charisma have made him a darling of progressives and an international celebrity.
He got on famously with Barack Obama, who gave him a state dinner in Washington. In gratitude, Trudeau invited Obama to address Parliament in Ottawa, where besotted legislators shouted “four more years!”
No one expects a similar “bromance” between Trump and Trudeau; Trump is unlikely to greet Trudeau with a hug, as he did the Japanese Prime Minister on Friday. The President is older, more conservative and pessimistic; he has different views on Europe, Russia, the United Nations, immigration, refugees and climate change. History suggests a tense relationship: Liberal prime ministers tend to clash with Republican presidents.
Indeed it will take all Trudeau’s considerable charm to avoid confrontation. For a country that earns a vast amount of its wealth from international trade, the stakes are high. Canada is a junior partner. When the elephant sneezes, Pierre Trudeau once said, Canada catches cold. To avoid the contagion, the younger Trudeau must show Trump that Canada is a fair trader, a secure source of energy, and a reliable guardian of the northern frontier.
Trudeau will remind Trump that Canada and the United States have the world’s largest trading relationship, with some US$2 billion in goods and services crossing the unmilitarized border every day. He will highlight measures taken over the last decade to create “a smart border,” facilitating business but deterring terrorists. He will laud Trump’s approval of the Keystone XL pipeline (carrying Canadian crude oil from Alberta’s oil sands to the United States), which had been blocked by Obama. And he will make much of a big infrastructure project on the Detroit-Windsor border, where Canada is financing a new bridge and customs plaza.
Then again, Trudeau is less likely to mention that Canada enjoys a trade surplus with the United States, which buys 75% of its total exports. Or that Canada, a charter member of NATO, spends only 1% of its wealth on defense, suggesting it is free rider.
The good news for Trudeau is that Trump says he has no quarrel with Canada; he does not see Canada as a threat to jobs and security like Mexico. To make this point, Trump sent a representative to a meeting of the Canadian Cabinet in Calgary last month.
Preparing for Trump, Trudeau named a new foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, an author and former journalist who knows the United States better than her dour predecessor, Stéphane Dion. Trudeau has also consulted Brian Mulroney, the former Conservative Prime Minister, who knows Trump, as well as Canadians who have done business with the President.
The reality remains that Trump wants to rewrite the North American Free Trade Agreement and could impose a hefty tax on Canada’s softwood lumber. His recent executive order banning immigration from specified majority Muslim nations is unpopular in Canada (which has accepted some 40,000 Syrian refugees) but has made national security the signature of his young presidency.
This is where things become sticky for Trudeau: He must balance Canada’s interests (trade, investment, jobs) against its values (diversity, open immigration, collective security). Canada is a progressive, moderate society that has adopted universal health care, embraced gay marriage and abortion, and ended capital punishment.
The United Nations, NATO and liberalized trade have been the pillars of Canada’s foreign policy since 1945; Canada has imposed sanctions on Russia (Freeland, a Russian speaker of Ukrainian ancestry, is barred from travel to Russia for her criticism of its annexation of Crimea.) Canada supports the Iranian nuclear deal and the Paris Agreement on climate change.
When Trudeau goes to Washington, he will try mightily to make a good impression. He will likely do whatever he can — rewriting NAFTA, refusing to criticize Trump’s policy on refugees, accepting Sarah Palin (as rumored) as U.S. ambassador without complaint — to keep Canada’s biggest customer happy.
But if Trump adopts a foreign policy antithetical to Canada’s liberal internationalism, the Prime Minister will come under great pressure from Canadians to stand up to the United States, even at the risk of starting a trade war.
It may be a clash of visions is inevitable, no matter how well the two leaders get on. If so, expect Trump to be vilified in Canada, and for relations with Washington to turn the ugliest since Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War.