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Trudeau Seeks a Beyond-Keystone Reboot to Canada-U.S. Relations

by Danielle Bochove (feat. Colin Robertson)

Bloomberg News
October 22, 2015

“It’s more than Keystone,” could well be Justin Trudeau’s mantra on managing Canada’s vital relationship with the U.S.

Even before formally taking office, Prime Minister-elect Trudeau is racing to build a closer relationship with President Barack Obama. He spoke with Obama by telephone on Tuesday and stressed the need for the two countries to work more closely on environmental cooperation and to broaden a bilateral conversation that, under Stephen Harper, was dominated by the controversial pipeline. One of Trudeau’s first tasks may be to send an envoy to Washington to begin aligning positions on climate change, analysts said.

A more immediately amicable relationship could serve multiple objectives for Trudeau: delivering quickly on a key pledge to shore up the country’s international reputation by establishing a common front with the U.S. ahead of climate change negotiations in Paris, and managing the rejection by Obama of the Keystone XL project, which may be announced soon.

“One of the things that has been a challenge within the relationship between Canada and the U.S. is it has in many cases been focused on a single point of disagreement, a single pipeline,” Trudeau said after the Obama call.

Trudeau has made much over the past year of the need to build a closer and more productive cross-border relationship as part of his overall critique of Harper, whom he handily defeated in Monday night’s Canadian election. He promised to end the “hectoring” tone in the relationship and to set up a special cabinet committee “to oversee and manage” issues between the two countries.

The 43-year-old Trudeau will likely have his first official meeting with Obama at the G20 leaders’ summit in Turkey Nov. 15. There, the migrant crisis and Canada’s pledge to end its participation in the aerial portion of the campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq will be front and center. Trudeau has pledged to take in additional refugees and to increase Canada’s efforts in training local ground forces.

A day later, the new prime minister is expected to attend an Asia Pacific meeting in Manila where trade partners will want him to bring greater clarity to his government’s stand on the Trans Pacific trade partnership.

But it’s the Paris Climate Change Conference in December Trudeau has spoken most about, promising to attend with Canada’s provincial premiers. “I indicated to Mr. Obama that I felt that it was important that Canada demonstrates a level of positive engagement on the environmental file on the international stage,” Trudeau said in his first post-election press conference.

Over the past year, Trudeau’s party repeatedly blamed Harper’s aggressive and single-minded pursuit of a single cross-border energy project for a fractious relationship with the White House.

“For the past couple of years we haven’t heard of Canada in the United States except for Keystone. And in the last year, that all just seemed rather silly, quite frankly," Stephen Blank, a long-time U.S. scholar on Canada, said in an interview.

The Canadian side of the world’s biggest trading relationship puts great emphasis on the importance of good inter-personal connections at the top. “There’s more than just structural issues involved, there’s personalities,” said Bill Graham, a former Liberal foreign and defense minister. Referring to Harper and Obama, he said: “I don’t think their relationship was in any way either warm or productive and I don’t think that was helpful to Canada.”

It is, of course, always easier for Democrats to get along with Liberals, and Republicans with Conservatives, but Trudeau seems to have taken aboard the advice of former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, a Conservative, that it is the responsibility of any Canadian leader to develop a good working relationship with whoever is U.S. president.

Trudeau’s first move in that direction should be to initiate a substantive conversation with the White House on environmental policy before Paris, said Colin Robertson, a former diplomat and now vice president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. Given the tight time line, he thinks it likely Trudeau will send a high-level emissary to Washington to begin aligning the country’s positions; senior Trudeau adviser Gerald Butts, the former President of the World Wildlife Federation-Canada, would be the obvious choice, he said.

Disagreement exists as to whether there’s time left to do much business with Obama. Blank feels any progress made on climate will be "toxic" to the next Republican-dominated House and could prove ephemeral. Others, including Christopher Sands, Director of the Center for Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins University, argue that the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1988, the last year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. “Conventional wisdom for Canadian diplomats is the last year of an administration is not a bad time to push," Sands said.

Allan Gottlieb, who headed up Canada’s foreign service for the elder Trudeau and then served as U.S. ambassador in Washington under Mulroney, said he came to appreciate the importance of the close personal ties while watching Ronald Reagan cut through blockages at Mulroney’s urging.

For many analysts, Trudeau’s stated intent to expand North American ties, including with Mexico, and develop a continent-wide climate policy has the potential to define his government. Gottlieb is fond of quoting former French president Charles de Gaulle that “to be a great leader, you need only have one idea.” Trudeau’s father’s one great idea, Gottlieb said, was making his vision of a strong federalist nation, thrust upon him by the potential break-up of Canada, a cornerstone of his international relations.

“It’s the times that give the opportunity for greatness to arise,” he said. While it remains to be seen if Justin Trudeau’s “one idea” will emanate from his embrace of environmental concerns, "it would be a great mistake to underestimate him.”


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