National Column: Trudeau’s Trump meeting may not be Canadian disaster

by Paul Wells

Batten down the hatches. All the old Canadian insecurities are about to gust up to hurricane force.

A young, inexperienced, left-leaning Canadian prime minister, alone in the Oval Office with a NATO-chomping Republican silverback who will – not – shut – up – about how tough and smart and smart and tough and winning and tough and smart he is.

It’s enough to make you cover your eyes and peek between fingers. The kid’ll get eaten alive.

There’ll be nothing but freshly picked-over bones of part-time drama teacher on the grassy floor of the Trump enclosure when it’s done.

The Sun headlines write themselves. There’ll be time for Kevin O’Leary to shout “Bambi vs. Godzilla!” 40 times before Justin Trudeau’s aircraft even leaves the tarmac at Ottawa airport.

Unless things work out differently. They could, you know.

Twenty days elapsed between Donald Trump’s inauguration and the announcement, Thursday morning, that Justin Trudeau will spend Monday in Washington.

Surely that was plenty of time for the prime minister and his staff to go back and forth a dozen times over whether it’s even a good idea to get into the big guy’s personal space.

Maybe this whole relationship could be managed by telephone. Maybe they could tweet at each other.

Maybe surrogates could do the heavy lifting. Harjit Sajjan, the defence minister, has worked with American soldiers. Chrystia Freeland’s been on CNN. Maybe Trump and Trudeau could meet, but just not quickly. Give everything a chance to settle down. What harm could there be?

Those sentiments seem to have put an extra week or two into the delay before Trudeau’s trip. But there are good reasons not to wait longer.

First, there is no evidence that anyone does better by staying out of the new president’s face than by getting into it.

It’s safe to assume Trump’s French is shaky, but he seems to live his life by the maxim that Les absents ont toujours tort – that the absent are always wrong. He feels free to badmouth a federal judge in Seattle or the management of Nordstrom when he’s alone on his phone in the White House residence.

He even managed to pick a fight with Australia’s prime minister over the phone.

But in face-to-face meetings, Godzilla has shown a surprising and consistent tendency to shrink to Bambi-like proportions.

Trump hasn’t had a cross word against Barack Obama since the two men met after last November’s election.

He was never nicer to Enrique Pena Nieto than when he was in the Mexican president’s presence last August.

Not even the hated New York Times could remain in his bad books when he visited the paper in late November (“a great, great American jewel, world jewel”).

In the most extraordinary example of Trump’s willingness to roll over in the face of personal attention, he was the world’s biggest advocate of torturing prisoners until his choice for secretary of defence, Gen. James Mattis, told him the practice serves no useful purpose.

The thought doesn’t seem to have occurred to Trump previously. For now, at least, he seems to have abandoned torture as a policy.

Baby steps.

The second thing Trudeau has going for him is that Canada does not seem to figure on Trump’s well-established list of things he loves to hate.

The man has a robust trail of Twitter invective, on which China, Mexico, street gangs and certain celebrities feature prominently. Canada doesn’t.

This benevolence seems widespread even in today’s Washington.

Freeland reports that on her first trip to Washington as foreign minister, she felt like she was “pushing on an open door” whenever she talked up the merits of Canada-U.S. trade.

So. Meeting Trump seems a safer bet than keeping him at bay and hoping he doesn’t notice.

Canada in general is highly regarded, or at least not seen as a focus of resentment, across the administration and the U.S. capitol.

What’s to discuss? Trade. Security. Here, Trudeau might as well try to work with Trump’s fondness for gated communities, because there is no way to change his mind.

The president views the world as divided between outsiders, who have no right to get in, and insiders, who need protecting or can help with it. It would be handy if Canada were viewed as a fellow insider.

Little bits of theatre could help. If Trudeau could bring Ralph Goodale, the fabulously taciturn public safety minister, along with a ranking soldier or Mountie in everyday uniform, it couldn’t hurt.

(I’m conscious that this sounds ridiculous. I’m keeping the Canadians’ intended audience in mind.)

Trump may demand increased Canadian military spending. Trudeau may have to make encouraging noises.

Most new money would go to consultants and cost overruns instead of to genuinely enhanced military capability.

But if it’s the price of calm on the southern border, it may be worth it.

There may be no way to build a constructive relationship. A responsible Canadian government will try anyway. Maybe everything will be fine.

It’s worth a shot.

Paul Wells is a national affairs writer. His column appears Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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