National Column: Trump-Trudeau meeting polite but inconclusive

by Thomas Walkom

OK. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump have met. They did not get into a slanging match. They did agree that Canada and the U.S. are the best of pals. They issued a bland but not unimportant joint communique.

Now what?

The consensus in Canada seems to be that Trudeau’s first face-to-face meeting with the new president Monday was a success. And I suppose it was.

Trump didn’t tweet out anything negative about Trudeau. So that’s something.

The U.S. president did abruptly cut off one of the Canadian female CEOs he and Trudeau honoured earlier in the day, when her remarks went on too long.

But during the public sessions at least, Trump didn’t do that to Trudeau.

Prime ministers and presidents don’t always get on. Richard Nixon, for instance, privately derided Pierre Trudeau as a “pompous egghead” after the then prime minister lectured him in 1971 on the virtues of open trade between Canada and the U.S.

If Trump has similar views about Justin Trudeau, he is – uncharacteristically – keeping them to himself.

So I can understand why Trudeau’s staff would be tempted to pat one another on the back after Tuesday’s get-together. Nothing awful happened. The joint communiquÈ – with its references to Canada’s importance as a U.S. export market – could have been penned by the prime minister’s office and probably was.

Trump stuck to his teleprompter lines and, with a few exceptions, avoided his trademark hyperbole.

Most of the time, it seemed his mind was somewhere else. Given that Michael Flynn, his top national security adviser, was about to resign in disgrace, that was not surprising. Indeed, it would have been surprising if Trump, a man who rarely mentions Canada, had shown a passion for discussing the softwood lumber dispute or the merits of the planned cross-border Gordie Howe bridge at Windsor.

However, the one-on-one meeting leaves most of the big Canada-U.S. questions unanswered.

On the North American Free Trade Agreement, Trump reiterated what we already knew: His big beef is with Mexico, which has used cheap wages to lure American (and Canadian) manufacturers.

Still, as he told reporters Monday, his administration will be “tweaking” the “very outstanding trade relationship with Canada,” in a manner that “benefits both of our countries.”

It’s hard to know what any of this means. Trump has long said he favours bilateral over multilateral deals. In his press conference, he talked of working toward “reciprocal trade” between Canada and the U.S.

Both are hints that he would like to replace the three-nation NAFTA with two separate bilateral deals – one between Canada and the U.S., the other between the U.S. and Mexico.

As far as Canada is concerned, such a move would not be too difficult. The 1989 Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement still legally exists and could be reanimated if NAFTA were scrapped.

On security, it is not clear what more the Trump administration wants. As Trudeau pointed out, Canada is already “co-ordinating with our allies, the United States and around the world” when deciding which Syrian and other refugees to admit.

In effect, this allows U.S. security agencies to blackball from entry to Canada any individual refugee they consider a threat.

Yet Trump suggested Canada could do more. He noted that he has “some wonderful ideas on immigration” and some “very tough ideas” on terrorism.

“When we put them all together,” he went on, “we will see some very, very obvious results.”

On defence, the joint communiquÈ refers glowingly to Canada’s role in the fight against Daesh (also known as ISIS or ISIL) as well as Ottawa’s decision to send troops to Latvia as part of a NATO effort to confront Russia.

It says nothing about United Nations peacekeeping.

It is particularly silent on Canada’s promise to send 600 soldiers somewhere in Africa under the auspices of the UN, suggesting that Ottawa has not yet received Washington’s stamp of approval for such a move.

On climate change, neither leader said anything. Trudeau did not talk of his planned carbon tax. Trump did not mention that he has called climate change a Chinese-inspired hoax.

Trudeau did refer fleetingly to a 1991 Canada-U.S. treaty to curb acid rain – a reminder that the two countries have worked together on environmental issues before and a hint that they could do so again.

But, as with so much of this polite but inconclusive summit, there was no indication of how to get there from here.

Thomas Walkom appears Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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