Justin Trudeau faces tricky balancing act in meeting with Donald Trump
by Ashifa Kassam (feat. Colin Robertson)
February 12, 2017
One is a self-described feminist who champions trade and has opened Canada’s doors to tens of thousands of Syrian refugees. The other has sought to curb abortions, threatened to tear up the Nafta trade deal and temporarily halted the admission of refugees to the US.
Between them sits a border crossed by nearly 400,000 people each day – the nexus of a deeply intertwined relationship that has spawned millions of jobs and cooperation on everything from intelligence to climate change action.
On Monday, Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, will travel to Washington for his first meeting with Donald Trump, in a high stakes encounter with the US president that will set the tone of Canada-US relations for years to come.
Much is on the line; while the youthful Canadian leader has gained a global reputation for his views on gender equality, LGBT rights and immigration, three-quarters of Canada’s exports go the US and roughly 2.5 million Canadian jobs depend on American trade.
“I feel like we’re on a hijacked aircraft and we have to be as reasonable as possible to the pilot who is locked in the front,” said John Higginbotham, a senior fellow at Carleton University and the Centre for International Governance Innovation. “We’re really different from the US and this has accentuated those differences.”
As news of Monday’s meeting broke, Trudeau hinted at the – at times competing – responsibilities he shoulders when it come to US relations. “The first is, of course, to highlight Canadian values and principles and the things that keep our country strong,” he told reporters on Thursday. “The second responsibility that I have … is creating jobs and opportunity for Canadian citizens through the continued close integration on both sides of the border.”
It’s a tightrope act familiar to Canadian prime ministers throughout history. But none have ever faced a president quite like Trump.
Higginbotham pointed to the president’s recent phone call with the Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull. After blasting a deal to take in refugees from an Australian detention centre, the president abruptly ended the call, telling Turnbull it was the “worst call by far”, according to the Washington Post.
The leaked details suggest that even close allies of the US will not be spared the wrath of Trump. “Australia is even more loved in Washington than Canada is because Australians follow them into every war,” said Higginbotham. “So for Mr Trudeau this is a big challenge. His government was not ready for this at all. It was getting ready for a third Obama term with Mrs Clinton.”
Much of Monday’s meeting is simply about jumpstarting a personal relationship between Trudeau and Trump. Canadian officials are also keen to get a sense of Trump’s intentions when it comes to promises to renegotiate Nafta and reinforce the mutual benefits of the longstanding relationship between the two countries.
Senior advisers in Trump’s team have suggested that Canada will not be a target in trade negotiations. But Trump could easily harm Canada if he wanted to, said Colin Robertson of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, and will probably try to provoke Trudeau. “I think Trump did that with Turnbull, I think this is part of his modus operandi.”
The Canadian prime minister may have one advantage over other world leaders looking to court Trump’s favour: his looks. “If you look at the people that Trump has surrounded himself with over the years, they are celebrities. And they are all highly attractive people. Trudeau has that aura – both of them do,” Robertson said, referring to Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, who is not expected to accompany Trudeau during this visit. “And my view is that Canada should take advantage of whatever we’ve got.”
Across Canada – as well as among Trudeau and his inner circle, according to sources – Trump is deeply unpopular. Polls before the November election suggested some 85% of Canadians preferred Hillary Clinton. Tens of thousands of Canadians joined local women’s marches last month while busloads of demonstrators crossed the border to take part in marches in the US. Recent weeks have seen hundreds more in Canada protest against Trump’s attempt to restrict travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
But while several world leaders have condemned Trump’s actions, the Canadian prime minister has avoided publicly criticising Trump. Instead Trudeau – whose government is currently investigating whether enforcement of Trump’s travel ban on Canadian soil would violate the country’s law – has used Twitter to highlight the difference in the positions being espoused by Washington and Ottawa.
Calls have been steadily growing for Trudeau to abandon the subtleties and stand up to Trump. “Mr Trudeau talks a good game,” said Tom Mulcair, leader of the progressive New Democratic party in an interview. “He talks with some emotion about standing up for human rights. But now he’s got to start acting.”
The issue has taken on greater importance as reports emerge of Canadian citizens being denied entry to the US after being grilled over their faith or backgrounds. “It is wrong to ban people based on their religion or national origin and Justin Trudeau has the moral responsibility to make that clear in his dealings with the US president,” said Mulcair. “He can’t try to sweep that under the rug.”
Washington and Ottawa have been at odds before, said Mulcair, pointing to 2003, when Canada announced it would not directly support George W Bush’s war in Iraq. “The Americans were very unhappy,” he said. “Canada correctly stood its ground and it didn’t stop us from maintaining good relationships with them.”
Monday’s meeting will probably see Trudeau seek some sort of middle ground between pursuing Canada’s economic interests and standing up to Trump, said Roland Paris, a University of Ottawa professor who served as foreign policy adviser to Trudeau during his first months in office. “I don’t see this as an either/or choice. I think that Canadians expect their prime minister to have a working and effective relationship with the US president, no matter who is in office, and simultaneously reaffirm Canada’s distinctive values.”
Whether this approach will alienate the president or anger Canadians calling for Trudeau to take a firmer line with Trump remains to be seen. “Trump’s interactions with some leaders should lead anyone to question how he’ll be approaching future meetings,” said Paris. “There’s a measure of uncertainty and unpredictability to the man.”