To there…and back again

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau travelled to the White House yesterday to meet face to face with President Donald Trump…and survived to tell of tale.

Indeed, to listen to the media here, he has pulled off something of a real diplomatic coup.  As one foreign policy observer (and a former foreign policy advisor to the PM) tweeted yesterday


We were worried because Canada is intimately bound up with the United States by virtue of shared history;  a long, common border; the largest trading relationship in the world; and a constant exchange of people, media, and popular culture.

Candidate and President Trump have upset many in Canada, and around the world, over these past months. His protectionist “America First” trade policy and his xenophobic, anti-immigrant, “go it alone” anti-globalization has already turned the traditional position of the United States upside down.  His continued ties with his business empire, his promotion of family members within the Administration, his tolerance of white-supremacists as his key advisors, and an apparent strange affinity for Russian and President Putin have created real concerns about the nature of his administration and his intentions to friends and allies of.

The President’s earlier engagements with the UK Prime Minister, and telephone calls with French and Australian leaders have inspired no confidence that his White House has the ability to plan for and execute the most mundane international activity, even on home turf.

With so much at stake and with a domestic constituency that has been clamouring for him to make clear Canada’s distaste for Trump, Trudeau faced a real challenge in this first meeting.  By all accounts he rose to the occasion.

  • There were no gaffes. He escaped the embarrassing 19 second handshake/arm wrestle endured by the Japanese PM days earlier.  Although I wouldn’t extend the analysis as far as some in the media did!
  • He was able to clarify for his Canadian audience that his job as leader was not to lecture other countries on their policy choices, but to find ways to work together.
  • He was able to demonstrate to the President that, despite their clear separation on the political spectrum, they have common interests, i.e. prosperity for their respective middle classes.
  • He also was able to articulate the interdependence of the Canadian and US economies, so much so that the President seemed to recognize the potential of moving forward together on some joint infrastructure projects.
  • On NAFTA, the President insisted that he was only interested in “tweaking” the NAFTA vis a vis Canada.  Mexico was the real problem.
  • A positive, forward looking Joint Declaration was issued by the two leaders.

All in all not a bad couple of hours.  What made it happen?

I am sure there was solid advance work that helped create working relationships between the two teams. Indeed, one of the more surreal photos from the day is one of PM Trudeau’s Principal Secretary (a former head of the World Wildlife Fund) sharing a joke with Trump’s Steve Bannon!

There was a great gift idea…a 35 year old photo of President Trump giving a speech honouring Justin Trudeau’s father Pierre.

But far and away the best idea was to reach out to Ivanka Trump and to convince her to get behind the idea of having the two leaders share a roundtable with female business leaders to discuss opportunities to enhance female participation in business.  This created the potential for a positive joint engagement between the two men and created some good links to Ivanka Trump for the future, who is seen as a moderating influence on her father in some policy areas.

So we got out of this first engagement with no serious damage.  This is not to say that we are in the clear.  Neither side really had to deal with tough issues this time around.  It was a “get to know you” kind of affair.  The future will no doubt be fraught with problems.  For instance, it is not easy to see how the U.S. can deal with their issues vis a vis Mexico in the context of NAFTA re-negotiation but only “tweak” the deal with respect to Canada.

Finally, even if we are doing well by our new relationship as of yesterday, things can change rapidly in the Trump White House.  One day you are an honoured guest…the next a nobody.  Why just today Press Secretary Sean Spicer (he of  Saturday Night Live satire) continue his miscues…calling Prime Minister Trudeau “Joe Trudeau“…