National Column: Trudeau must capitalize on rare U.S. attention

by Tim Harper

Justin Trudeau is about to be the man of the moment in Washington.

But official Washington’s attention span is notoriously fickle and the prime minister’s challenge will be to parlay the South Lawn pomp and the red carpet into enduring Canadian influence after Barack Obama leaves the White House.

So the Trudeau team has turned this into a three-day festival of dinners, parties and after-parties with wait lists for all.

“Washington only rarely pays attention to Canada so once you get your moment in the sun, why not maximize it?” says Maryscott Greenwood, of the Canadian American Business Council.

The Canada-U.S. dynamic is largely shaped by the personal comfort level between president and prime minister.

A look back at bilateral relations since the last state dinner, when Bill Clinton hosted Jean Chretien, reveals that dynamic is often absent and the oft-heard pabulum about enduring, neighbourly, warm relations can be a mirage.

Here’s a brief history – let’s start in 2000.

That year, as a 28-year-old Justin Trudeau burst onto the national scene with the eulogy at his father’s funeral, Al Gore and George W. Bush were locked in a historically tight presidential race and fallout from a Canadian faux pas was still churning.

Raymond ChrÈtien, the Canadian ambassador to Washington, had touched the third rail of bilateral relations, signalling that Canada preferred the election of Gore over Bush.

When Bush won, he broke convention and made his first visit to Mexico. Then came Sept. 11, 2001.

Prominent U.S. politicians, loudly and wrongly, proclaimed the attackers arrived from Canada, Bush’s envoy to Ottawa suggested a continental security perimeter, the border thickened overnight and Bush snubbed Canada by ignoring this country’s help to Americans stranded in the wake of the attacks.

Things worsened when Jean ChrÈtien’s communications director was overheard calling Bush a “moron” in his search for a “coalition of the willing” to invade Iraq. A Liberal MP, Carolyn Parrish, upped the ante
by calling the Bush administration “bastards,” then stomping on a Bush doll on the CBC. Bush cancelled a trip to Canada, then, when he finally arrived in his second term, Canadians gave him a single-finger salute along his motorcade route.

Bush thanked those who waved “with all five fingers,” then promptly sandbagged prime minister Paul Martin by publicly calling on Canada to support a missile shield after Martin received assurances that wouldn’t be raised on his turf.

Bush had better relations with Stephen Harper but betrayed the depth of their relationship in a 2006 meeting, calling him “Steve” – no one else ever had. Then a press conference ended in cringeworthy fashion as reporters sang Happy Birthday to the U.S. president and three of their colleagues were ushered to the stage as Harper looked on awkwardly.

Harper stood with a frozen smile as Canadians heaped adoration on the newly elected Obama in front of the Centre Block, but that relationship ultimately foundered with Harper calling Obama’s approval of the Keystone XL pipeline a “no-brainer” and Obama’s Ottawa envoy, Bruce Heyman, was placed in deep Conservative chill.

Now, everyone wants a piece of the Canadian prime minister.

The Canada-U.S. relationship is built on a series of small agreements, and so it is that three U.S. senators used the Trudeau visit to call for a levelling of the playing field on duty-free cross-border purchases to
help small American businesses, and the New Hampshire Congressional complained lack of Canadian restrictions on opioids – including oxycodone – meant drugs flowing across the border.

A good Obama-Trudeau relationship means these issues may end up on the desk of the relevant Canadian ministers.

There will be movement on customs pre-clearance and entry-exit tracking and the environment-methane and vehicle emissions, bringing greener technologies to the North – measures Obama can take through executive orders.

But both men know there is a larger legacy available to Obama and Thursday’s state dinner is a precursor to a so-called “Three Amigos” summit to be held this year in Canada for the first time in nine

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto would be anxious to burnish his environmental credentials by signing on to such an accord.

“A continental agreement is one thing, a hemispheric agreement is a greater legacy,” says Carlo Dade, a trade and investment specialist with the Canada West Foundation.

The Mexican relationship is the next rock to be moved by Trudeau. It was Harper, tired of questions on Keystone on one side and Mexican anger with visa requirements on the other, who cancelled the last three Amigos summit.

Trudeau has pledged to end the visa requirements for Mexico and has already discussed common environmental policy with Pena Nieto.

This will be the next step in this hemispheric relationship after Thursday’s red carpet is rolled up.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Twitter:@nutgraf1

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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