There’s considerable risk attached to Trudeau’s meeting with Trump in Washington

0 Comments 16 March 2017

If Justin Trudeau is too aggressive, he could become another high-profile target in Donald Trump’s world tweet war. If Trudeau is too accommodating, he risks facing the ire of a considerable number of citizens back home who want the prime minister to fight back. The Monday meeting requires a delicate balance.


First published on Monday, February 13, 2017 with The Hill Times.

OTTAWA—Canada shares the longest open border in the world with the United States. Canadians would obviously like to keep it that way.

The Monday meeting between the prime minister and U.S. President Donald Trump will be key to that outcome.

At first blush, the two leaders are very different. Not only are they separated by age. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s political values are very different to Trump’s.

But Trudeau grew up with considerable family wealth and notoriety, in circumstances similar to Trump. Trudeau also spent much of his life in the public eye.

The Trudeau brand has been widely known around the world, rivalling that of the Trump brand.

Pierre Trudeau made a name for himself as a leader willing to break with tradition. He built new alliances, from early recognition of the People’s Republic of China to north-south political emphasis on Cuba and Latin America.

Political leaders still positively remember the influence of Pierre Trudeau on international public policy and will be watching this meeting closely.

As for Trump, his first weeks in office have not been well-received internationally. First came Trump’s fight with Mexico, then his disdain for China and two weeks ago was dominated by reports of a nasty telephone call with the prime minister of Australia.

To date, Trump’s strongest relationships appear to be with Russian president Vladimir Putin, and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe.

Thus far, Canada has not been on Trump’s radar. Trudeau’s visit will be an exercise in keeping it that way.

There is considerable risk attached to the outcome of the meeting.

Most of the risk is on Canadian shoulders. With our small population and integrated economy, Canada stands to lose the most in a trade war with Trump. Much of our interconnection, from the beginnings of the auto pact, to bilateral steel and lumber agreements, is dependent on stable political relationships between the two leaders.

Prime ministers and presidents do not have to like each other, but they need to be able to work together for the benefit of both countries.

On the other hand, the political culture of both sides is so different that appeasement on religious discrimination is an absolute non-starter in Canada, while it appears to be relatively popular in the United States.

If Trudeau is too accommodating, he risks facing the ire of a considerable number of citizens back home who want the prime minister to fight back.

Trump’s controversial travel ban targeting specific Muslim countries requires push-back from the Canadian leader. The attempted revocation of Nexus privileges for Canadian residents born in specified Muslim countries is a clear violation of the anti-discrimination privileges in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It needs a clear response.

At the same time, the economic risk to our bilateral relationship cannot be overstated.

Ottawa needs good relations in Washington to proceed on multiple economic fronts, from pipelines to the automotive sector to fisheries to softwood lumber.

Even our travellers benefit from a smoothly integrated border relationship. Every time a Canadian plane lands in a major American airport, our travellers are quickly moved through a preferred line, side by side with Americans.

A seamless relationship is key to both economies.

When Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland met with Republican Congressional Speaker Paul Ryan last week, she was armed with statistics about the importance of those relationships for the economy in his district. In turn, Ryan countered with the perennial request that Canada open its borders for dairy farmers from Wisconsin.

Canadian ministers have been working hard in Washington to prepare for the prime minister’s meeting with President Trump.

They are reinforcing the message that any threatened imposition of tariffs would hurt both economies.

There are other important issues at stake in this first meeting. Trump’s targeted attack on Muslims has left most Canadians cold. The president neglected to tweet any reference to the Quebec City mosque attack, even though he did call the prime minister to offer help.

The controversy over the travel ban and Trump’s insistence on building a Mexican border wall have both provoked anger in Canada that should be reflected in Trudeau’s messaging.

If he is too passive, our prime minister runs the risk of international and domestic rancour. There have already been some Mexican rumblings that Canada is siding with the United States against the third amigo in the North American Free Trade agreement.

If Trudeau is too aggressive, he could become another high-profile target in Trump’s world tweet war.

The Monday meeting requires a delicate balance.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era Cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.

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