National Column: Washington awaits the “anti-Trump”

by Tim Harper – Toronto Star

Next week’s White House state dinner will be the first such soiree in 19 years in which the guest of honour is a Canadian prime minister.

But it will be the first such dinner in memory in which the Canadian prime minister will be the subject of fascination by official Washington.

This will very much be the Justin Trudeau show, but he and Barack Obama would also like to do a little business. Can a rookie prime minister and a lame duck president really accomplish anything at next Thursday’s summit?

Obama has about 10 months remaining – 324 days to be precise – before the inauguration of a new president, but the oversized nature of this
presidential election cycle has dwarfed everything, including the remaining months of this presidency. There is the much larger and vexing question of how Trudeau would operate with a Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump White House.

Trudeau, in fact, was declared the anti-Trump in a Washington Post column this week that highlighted stark differences between the two men on issues as disparate as their treatment of women, their views on refugees, immigration, climate change and “being nice.”

Late last year, in an interview with BBC, Trudeau wrote Trump off, putting him prematurely in the political dustbin with Rob Ford and saying the era of “anti-politicians” who sow fear and division had largely run its course.

Tuesday, in an interview with Vancouver radio station News 1130, he talked about working with Trump without mentioning the Republican front-runner.

“I think there have been times when president and prime minister have been perhaps misaligned on an ideological or a political spectrum level, where we’ve been able to work very, very well together,” he said. Ideology can’t drive the bilateral relationship, Trudeau said.

In talks with Obama, Trudeau could try to expedite a new deal on softwood lumber after the October expiration of the previous pact. A standstill clause prevents the U.S. from launching trade action against Canadian producers for a year, but the lumber industry fears a return to the bad old days of trade disputes that cost the Canadian industry up to 10,000 jobs.

Obama could hand Trudeau a victory by ensuring renewal of the pact before he leaves office. They could also work to improve entry and exit immigration controls in both countries in Obama’s remaining days.

Obama wants to talk environment and both men are facing post-Paris headwinds.

Trudeau will have to speak about carbon-pricing opposition in Saskatchewan and Manitoba (where not coincidentally elections loom). Obama’s bid to regulate emissions from coal-fired power plants was stayed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Obama is seeking a legacy issue on climate change and Trudeau is trying to make it a centrepiece of his first mandate, so the two men have common goals, albeit much different political timelines.

More than anything, next week’s meeting and dinner is a chance to showcase Trudeau in Washington, an opportunity accorded him by an outgoing president who welcomes a younger progressive as a neighbour and, some have suggested, sees something of himself in Trudeau.

“The fact the Americans would bump this up to a state dinner demonstrates how they value this visit of the new Canadian prime minister,” says Paul Frazer, a former Canadian ambassador and Washington-based specialist on bilateral trade, environmental and security issues.

“No one here who has been paying attention is waiting to see Pierre Trudeau 2.0. They are waiting to see Justin Trudeau in his own right.”

So, Trudeau will be able to talk about Canada’s welcome to 25,000 Syrian refugees and sell it in a way to assuage any security fears that might remain in the U.S.

He will also be able to explain and sell his decision to remove CF-18s from the air war but put more boots on the ground in an advisory role in the anti-ISIS coalition. And Obama will publicly praise him, even if the Pentagon would have preferred to keep the Canadians in the sky.

And for this Trudeau, the Pentagon will remain quiet.

The last time a Trudeau came calling as prime minister, it was Justin’s father, whose arms reductions efforts were derided by a Ronald Reagan official as “akin to pot-induced behaviour by an erratic leftist” and panned by an unnamed Pentagon official who said Canada had not pulled its weight in NATO.

Trudeau the elder told reporters outside the White House he was not going to worry about third-rate “Pentagon pipsqueaks.”

Expect nothing but niceties – and much-needed attention to Canada – next week.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Copyright: 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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