Reality check: Will Trudeau’s dinner with Obama achieve anything other than theatre?
by Nick Logan (feat. Colin Robertson)
March 9, 2016
Political insiders say there will be much more going on beyond handshakes and a black-tie dinner in Washington, D.C. this week when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes an official visit to the U.S. capital.
And the events in the U.S. capital may very well shape Canada-U.S. relations when Trudeau begins working with a new U.S. president next year.
“In the corridors, it’s a chance to work out some issues and talk about a few potential initiatives,” says Lloyd Axworthy, Minister of Foreign Affairs under former Prime Minister Jean Chretien. “But, I think the important thing is to have a real public bonding that says, ‘Look, we’re friends. We get along.'”
Trudeau’s state visit is the first by a Canadian prime minister in 19 years, which some speculate is indicative of a frosty relationship between U.S. President Barack Obama and former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Through the Harper and Obama were able to reach deals and cooperate without such high profile affairs, that’s not to say there’s no value in an big event like this, according to a former Liberal cabinet minister who attended the last state visit to Washington in 1997.
It’s that face-to-face time that can make all the difference in bilateral relations.
“So much diplomacy is really based on personal relationships,” he adds. “When tough times happen or when there’s an emergency event or where there’s world crisis, you can pick up a phone and you don’t have to go through the preliminary protocols.”
While there are some issues Obama and Trudeau are going to have little trouble agreeing on — action on climate change, for one — there are some negotiations that may take more than a cordial conversation to reach an agreement on, such as softwood lumber imports.
Even in the best of times, when the two governments are aligned politically, there are touchy issues.
Axworthy notes the close diplomatic relationship with former Secretary of State Madeline Albright benefited from discussions over a glass of wine at dinners in Washington and how their camaraderie reduced the tension over a big trade issue during that era — a cross-border battle over Pacific salmon fishing rights.
Axworthy explains it fairly easy for Liberals to get along just fine with like-minded U.S. Democrats.
The same could be said for conservative Canadian leaders like Brian Mulroney and the strong bond he had with Republican President Ronald Reagan. The two were such close allies that Mulroney even delivered a eulogy at Reagan’s funeral in 2004.
“The personalities really do count,” adds former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson. “Ronnie liked Brian Mulroney.”
He points to the Mulroney-Reagan relationship for helping move negotiations forward when Canada and the U.S. were at loggerheads over the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.
Robertson sees Trudeau investing in building a relationship with Obama and he sees their compatibility evidenced in the U.S. president quickly offering to host “a new, untested leader” even though there isn’t much time left for them to work together.
The state visit, he adds, will set the tone for Canada-U.S. relations for the next American president.
This week’s Washington visit comes as the race for the White House, leading up to Election Day on Nov. 8, gets even more heated. Trudeau likely won’t have much trouble finding common ground with a President Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. President Donald Trump or Ted Cruz — minus Cruz being born in Canada — may be a different story, given some of the their political stances.
As all of the “stagecraft” is going on in Washington this week — with the photo ops, joint press conferences and the fine china service — Robertson says there will be a lot of “statecraft” happening. He says an inter-agency group will be “taking a hard look at Canada.”