In a triumph of low expectations, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau emerged from his first face-to-face meeting with new U.S. President Donald Trump without having experienced either a dressing-down or a direct threat—or being trapped in an extended power handshake, as happened to the prime minister of Japan on his turn at the Trump court. The absence of fireworks was widely declared a success, not to say a relief, for Canada.
“Justin Trudeau and Donald Trump struck an amiable, conciliatory note” in their meeting, Global News reports, “acknowledging the unique nature of the Canada-U.S. relationship and the need to keep trade moving across a shared, secure border.”
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After the U.S. president’s testy exchanges with leaders of other American allies and trading partners, including the prime minister of Australia and the president of Mexico, the worst diplomatic moment to emerge from Trump’s meeting with Trudeau was a photo of the latter looking warily at the former’s hand, which promptly went viral.
More serious early reviews of the high-stakes encounter between the former drama teacher and the former reality TV star were mainly positive.
“Trudeau left Washington Monday with as much as he could hope for,” Bloomberg declares. “Trump pledged publicly to only ‘tweak’ Canada’s side of the North American Free Trade Agreement and ease the flow of goods along the northern border, while saying he’d focus instead on the ‘unfair’ U.S. commercial relationship with Mexico to the south. It was the clearest signal yet that Canada—and the $541 billion in bilateral trade of which it’s a part—isn’t in U.S. crosshairs.”
“Trudeau did very well today,” Christopher Sands, director of the Center for Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins University, told Bloomberg. “Trump made some important distinctions between Canada and Mexico. That’s reassuring for markets.”
“Overall,” agrees Tasha Kheiridden in iPolitics, “the visit—the most challenging meeting of his political career to date—turned out to be a job well done by Trudeau. It might not lead to a beautiful friendship, but it’s not love Trudeau’s looking for: it’s respect. And on that measure, he appears to be off to a good start.”
“On NAFTA, going from tearing it up to tweaking it is a huge leap forward,” Michael Kergin, a former Canadian ambassador to the United States, told CBC News. “The president’s use of that word, ‘tweaking,’ is a major win.”
Apart from that tea-leaf moment, the meeting appeared to have been much more a get-acquainted session than a substantive dialogue. The creation of a cross-border task force to encourage women in business was unexpected (and clearly the result of advance coordination, considering the number of business women who accompanied Trudeau). A joint statement released by the two leaders was mainly a recital of bromides about the deep and wide relationship between the two countries. An exception was a section energy and pipelines.
Under the sub-heading Energy Security and Environment, the joint statement read: “U.S.-Canada energy and environmental cooperation are inextricably linked, and we commit to further improving our ties in those areas. We have built the world’s largest energy trading relationship. We share the goals of energy security, a robust and secure energy grid, and a strong and resilient energy infrastructure that contributes to energy efficiency in both countries. We collaborate closely on energy innovation, particularly in the clean energy sphere. As the process continues for the Keystone XL pipeline, we remain committed to moving forward on energy infrastructure projects that will create jobs while respecting the environment.”
Neither the word “climate” nor “Paris”—as in the Paris Accord which Trudeau has championed and Trump has condemned—appeared in the statement’s text. (Neither did ‘refugee’ or ‘immigrant’ for that matter.) As several observers reported, it was apparent the leaders had for the moment agreed to disagree on those subjects.
The meeting’s anodyne, and on climate, vacuous outcome after much pre-event hand-wringing doubtless disappointed some who had hoped that Trudeau would use his face time with the U.S. president to more energetically press a progressive agenda.
“While Trudeau might prefer to quietly hope that Trump doesn’t derail climate progress, it would be a profound mistake to be silent on this issue,” wrote Erin Flanagan, director of the Pembina Institute’s federal policy program, and Anthony Swift, director of the Canada Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a Policy Options op-ed ahead of the Trudeau visit.
“This is an important moment for the U.S. and Canadian climate partnership, one in which Trudeau has an opportunity to exert pressure as the new U.S. administration determines its direction. Trudeau must ask about Trump’s intention to follow through on implementation of the Paris Agreement, a landmark global climate deal. Further, he should probe for assurances that the U.S. administration will remain engaged in bilateral cooperation on climate and clean energy—especially areas of harmonized regulation, like vehicle efficiency and oil and gas methane.”
There was nothing in the leaders’ joint statements, their remarks to reporters, or insider accounts of the meeting to suggest that those topics came up.
Instead, Trudeau alluded to the revived prospects for new pipelines under a Trump administration. “Today, we reiterated that our nations are committed to collaborating on energy infrastructure projects that will create jobs while respecting the environment,” he remarked “And as we know, investing in infrastructure is a great way to create the kind of economic growth that our countries so desperately need.”
The Prime Minister concluded his remarks by striking a note of commonality with the widely-deplored American president: “At the end of the day, the president and I share a common goal. We both want to make sure that hard-working folks can go to work at a good job, put food on the table for their families, and save up to take a vacation every once in a while.”
If critics felt Trudeau might have done more, he at least departed Washington with no bridges in flames behind him. As Kheiridden put it, “this was diplomacy, and Trudeau was diplomatic. [He said:] ‘As we know, relationships between neighbours are pretty complex, and we can’t always agree on everything.’”
Canada’s leader appeared to have established at least the start of a relationship with the volatile occupant of the Oval Office. What will matter is what he is able to do with it.