Trudeau’s challenge in Washington? Think beyond Obama

by Colin Robertson

The Globe and Mail
March 1, 2016

There will be glitter and glamour next week when U.S. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama host Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau at the White House. But behind the stagecraft there will be statecraft.

For Mr. Trudeau, and for Canada, it’s a golden opportunity. The meetings between these two leaders will reinvigorate Canada-U.S. relations after a decade of decline and set an agenda that that will serve as the reference point for the next administration.

In Washington, the inter-agency effort behind the meetings around the state dinner, the first for a Canadian prime minister since Bill and Hillary Clinton hosted Jean and Aline Chrétien in 1997, is the most sustained attention that Canada has received since Mr. Obama visited Canada in February, 2009.

In the final year of his presidency and facing a hostile Congress, Mr. Obama is commonly called a “lame duck” president. But armed with executive authorities and the determination to push them to their limits, Mr. Obama has shown he wants to fire on all pistons before leaving office on January 20, 2017.

For Mr. Trudeau, the visit is an opportunity to advance shared goals on climate and energy, international security, the economy as well as border management and trade.

These meetings generally begin with a survey of the international scene. U.S. presidents are always interested in the Canadian perspective. We are different from the Americans, but no other nation comes as close to understanding the American temperament. When we are on our game, we can explain the rest of the world to the U.S. and the U.S. to the rest of the world.

Astute Canadian leaders, from Mackenzie King through Jean Chrétien, appreciated that this interpretative capacity gives Canada international leverage. It underlines why a first-class diplomatic service is a very good Canadian investment -- and why vigorously embracing multilateralism gives us additional place and standing.

Advancing the ‘green’ agenda

With four international summits and Davos under his belt, Mr. Trudeau brings a fresh view, if not yet deep experience, to the table. Mr. Trudeau’s recommitment to peace operations and his vow to tout Canada’s resourcefulness over its resources will interest Mr. Obama. Figuring out an external application of Canada’s success in pluralism to fix, even temporarily, deep divides of race and religion, would be as important a contribution as Lester Pearson’s peacekeeping work.

Positioning North America as a leader in “green” manufacturing and sustainable energy development is a goal shared by both leaders and the work of these Washington meetings will also prime the forthcoming North American leaders’ summit, which was postponed by former prime minister Stephen Harper amid chilly relations.

Building on our Paris commitments, the Washington meetings can help establish a joint agenda for climate action that includes, for example, a discussion around fracking and water usage that should become the global standards. Why not broaden the mandate of the century-old International Joint Commission, the global model for trans-boundary water use, to include climate issues?

Assuaging concerns on security

When it comes to security, we live under the long shadows of suspicion, however unfair, cast by 9-11. Giving sanctuary to the 25,000 Syrian refugees was the right thing to do but it sparked hearings by the U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee. At parliamentary hearings last week, CSIS acknowledged tracking 180 Canadians engaged with terrorist organizations overseas, including 50 who have returned to Canada.

For our own protection and to assuage American concerns, we need to move on our long-promised entry-exit arrangements. There should be reciprocal exchange of no-fly lists, with appropriate confidentiality provisions drawn, for example, from the recent EU-US privacy shield on data sharing.

Making progress on trade

Mr.Trudeau identified the economy, national unity and managing the Canada-U.S. relationship as prime ministerial priorities. Economic well-being underpins national unity. Trade drives our economy and the U.S. accounts for 75 per cent of that trade.

Mr. Trudeau needs to press Mr. Obama to reinvigorate improved border access because it will increase our trade in goods and services, especially with the U.S. economy in recovery.

Mr. Trudeau can remind Mr. Obama that, as their largest customer, we buy more from the U.S. than all 28 nations in the European Union, creating an estimated 9 million American jobs. Almost 30 per cent of what Canada sells to the U.S. originated there, reflecting the growing importance of supply chains.

But chokepoints still exist. We need to pass enabling legislation on pre-clearance. We can deepen the benefits of trusted traveller and trusted employer programs. A joint approach to gateway infrastructure – roads, rail, pipelines, transmission lines – should aim for common standards and a transparent permitting system.

With trade comes protectionist interests. Softwood lumber, the Freddy Krueger of irritants, is returning. The affected provinces need to get their act together before we can develop a Canadian position. Meanwhile, with careful, constant attention, starting at the top, the relationship thrives.

Next week’s meeting in Washington celebrates the friendship between our leaders and nations. It will also demonstrate to the rest of the world a model for the conduct of good neighbourly relations.

Colin Robertson is a former Canadian diplomat and current vice-president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

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