Home / Articles / Obama and Trudeau: Bromance for the Ages…or at Least for the Next 10 Months
President Barack Obama (R) and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada at a Bilateral Meeting, March 10, 2016.
The March 9-11 state visit to Washington by Canadian PM Justin Trudeau was the first such by a Canadian prime minister in 19 years. Reflecting Trudeau’s rock star persona in Canada, the visit was high on glitz and ceremony, giving official Washington a break from the cage fight politics now dominating domestic politics. Substantive “takeaways” from the visit were primarily environmental: commitments to sign the Paris “climate change” agreement; to reduce methane emissions; to act vigorously in protecting the Arctic; etc. As always, the “devil in the details” realities will dominate outcomes. Doubtless, President Obama and PM Trudeau are a better “fit” ideologically and personally Obama and PM Stephen Harper. In domestic, national security, and foreign affairs, Trudeau’s views align tightly with Obama’s. Canadians should remember, however, that the state visit for Trudeau was less for him than a final one-in-the-eye disrespect for Harper to whom Obama never offered a state visit.
The March 9-11 Washington visit of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was a special event. It was not special for marking the signature of a great agreement such as the 1987 bilateral Free Trade Agreement. Nor did it reflect the Summit engagements of great leaders of equal national power such as a “Nixon Goes to China” foreign policy breakthrough. Nor as the launch of a massive binational construction project such as the St Lawrence Seaway. It was, however, special for its renewal of an atmosphere of greater comity between Washington and Ottawa. Relations between nations are often personalized, regardless of how mundane and uneventful the basic relationship may be. And personal relationships at the most senior levels are frequently called upon for “last resort” solutions when the grinding of institutionalized bureaucracy has reached a dead end. Such is particularly true with the bilateral relationship between the United States and Canada.
Thus in a Washington that was experiencing the first warmth of spring after a grim-for-DC winter, the arrival of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was a welcome relief. It provided an opportunity for official Washington to divert itself for several days from the brutal and grating realities of a viciously fought presidential campaign with vituperation the flavor of every day. The sun was shining; early flowers were blooming (only the Tidal Basin cherry blossoms were still to emerge). We had this rock star and his fashion plate wife descend like visitors from another reality upon glum Washington, generating extensive media coverage and winning points for style and (anticipated) substance. The chattering class swooned. Every venue in which Trudeau appeared became a “must have” ticket; he wowed every audience; the dishes at the State Dinner were detailed for public delectation (yes, poutine was also included).
And with the likelihood of President Obama accomplishing anything substantive during his remaining months as president more fleeting every day, he may also have enjoyed a “night off” from political cage fighting. A little pomp and circumstance is fun.
Bilateral Relations: Some Reminders
Our bilateral relationship has had many descriptive aphorisms. Trudeau pere (Pierre Elliot Trudeau), the father of the current Canadian Prime Minister, described it as the interaction between an elephant and a mouse existing side by side. No matter how benign the elephant, the mouse always worried about the elephant’s twitching and turning.
Another, more appropriate for the past decade, is “We are best friends, like it or not.” And for much of the past 10 years, the “not” has been in the ascendency. Such was the circumstance characterizing relations between Tory Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barak Obama.
Indeed, the historical reality has been that the “fit” between U.S. and Canadian bilateral domestic and foreign policy interests has frequently been driven by personal/political ideology differences. The juxtaposition between liberal (Democrat) U.S. leadership and conservative (Tory) Canadian leadership (and vice versa) has always been worse than when “conservatives” or “liberals” head both countries. And when the bad fit persists for an extended period, reflecting the dominance of one party in either Canada or the United States, relative minor difference move toward the neuralgic.
Thus the long ascendency of Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals (1968-79, 1980-84) overlapped with Richard Nixon’s and Gerald Ford’s Republicans (1968-76) and generated tension on multiple economic and foreign policy issues. Nixon and Trudeau loathed each other, with Nixon reportedly referring to Trudeau as an “SOB” and Trudeau providing a classic riposte by saying that he had been called worst things by better men.
In contrast, President Ronald Reagan (1984-92), PM Brian Mulroney (1984-93), and President George HW Bush (1992-96), bonded as political conservatives as epitomized by the “Shamrock Summit” with a Reagan-Mulroney rendition of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” Substantive results included the 1991 Acid Rain Agreement to reduce air pollution.
There was similar personal and political congruence between President Clinton and Prime Minister Chretien (although Chretien more than occasionally made snarky comments regarding Clinton). In contrast, the worst relations were between “Dubya” Bush and Chretien when one of Chretien’s staffers called Bush a “moron” and a Liberal Member of Parliament jumped up and down on a Bush action figure on television. Love was not lost over Canada’s nonparticipation in the “coalition of the willing” 2003 war against Iraq.
Consequently, although mutual antipathy wasn’t fated between Obama and Harper, it had history/ideology to overcome.
Indeed, the relationship started well. Obama made his first foreign trip to Ottawa (in contrast to Bush making his first foreign trip to Mexico). Although it was a one-day “grip and grin” visit, they seemed personally compatible. Canadian crowds vigorously welcomed Obama (and were mildly envious that the antediluvian United States had elected a visible minority); Harper although prototypically stiff benefitted from Obama’s star power as well.
Moreover, there was considerable compatibility on domestic issues. We are each other’s greatest trading partners, a relationship immensely profiting both countries. Both the United States and Canada have major incentives to minimize border delays for commercial shipping while retaining maximum security. That Washington emphasized “security” and Ottawa concentrated on “openness” (rapid cross-border transit) simply reflected the persistent U.S. post-9/11 concern over prospective terrorism originating in Canada. Ottawa regards this concern as Uncle Sam verging on the paranoid rather merely being appropriately neurotic. Nevertheless, both countries persistently sought mechanisms to increase both security and rapid border transit as epitomized by the Beyond the Border agreement.
Jointly announced in Washington in February 2011 by Obama and Harper, Beyond the Border has had some success, but repeatedly bogged in “devil in the details” concerns driven by particularistic interests. The objectives are marginal and technical, but would doubtless be useful if they can be implemented.
Harper’s foreign policy also strongly supported ostensible U.S. public positions in Libya, Ukraine, Iraq-Syria (with fighter bombers and boots on the ground), and Iran (flat opposition to an Iranian nuclear weapons program). Unfortunately, many of Obama’s positions in these areas were closer to lip service than real service and, perhaps unknowingly, Harper was out of step with Obama. Harper’s open contempt for the United Nations “talk shop” proclivities was stronger than USG preferences, and he was indifferent to losing a rotating Security Council seat. Neither was Harper’s “all in” support for Israel a winner in Washington.
But it was a key domestic issue that generated toxic differences. Recalling what observers then characterized as obvious realities, Harper declared in 2011 that proposed construction of the Keystone Pipeline was a “no brainer” so far as securing official U.S. approval was concerned. Throughout the agonizing/tantalizing effort to secure approval, Harper “didn’t get the word” and instead doubled-down by declaring that he “wouldn’t take no for an answer.” Ultimately, Obama said “No” with a “Trudeau salute.” He did not do so, however, during the Canadian federal campaign.
Today’s Issues and the State Visit’s Takeaways
Any state visit is an intensely designed construct. Leaders do not meet and then depart with nothing more than a collection of “selfies.” Although there are always agreements in process with bureaucrats happily grinding along disputing commas, the announcement that there is going to be a presidential-prime ministerial visit (like the prospect of hanging) focuses the mind. A sense of urgency substitutes for dilatory disputes.
One obvious example was the 1995 “Open Skies” agreement which resolved the archaic bilateral air transport arrangements. The prospect of a Clinton state visit to Ottawa in February 1995 forced action which inter alia permitted direct flights between Washington and Ottawa.
But there was nothing so dramatic from this meeting. There are a variety of vague take-aways from this bilateral visit: greater cooperation in methane reduction; enhanced protection for the Arctic; more attention to “beyond the border” efforts to ease border security constraints. Specifically:
Commitment to sign and implement the Paris Agreement on climate change. In this regard, concurrent objectives to lower methane emissions by 40-45 percent by 2015;
Partnership to confront Arctic ecosystem changes in cooperation with indigenous communities to build a “sustainable Arctic economy”;
A series of efforts to improve border security, including the entry-exit information system; expanded preclearance at more Canadian airport and railroad sites; effort to rationalize the “false positives” on no-fly air flight lists; greater emphasis on synchronizing safety requirements for trains carrying crude oil, and commercial vehicles with just-in-time inventories.
As is invariably the reality, the devil-in-the-details wrangling of these issues will preclude rapid, comprehensive agreement.
Additionally, the sides grappled with the hardy perennial of “softwood lumber” wherein the expiration of an existing agreement has galvanized effort to extend that agreement and/or create something more lasting. Essentially, the problem will only be resolved when North America is clear cut.
For its part, the United States reinforced its commitment to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the Tories endorsed, but Trudeau has suggested needs further study, consultation with Canadians, and parliamentary review. And nobody talked “pipelines” despite Trudeau’s ostensible support for such.
The Basis for “Bromance”
The State visit/dinner was delightful, but there was also more than a touch of tristesse in the event. Obama had once stood in the same position as Trudeau now stands: a unique symbol of “Yes We Can” “hope and change” in the United States as the first African-American president, elected with majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and riding on a huge national surge of good will. Republicans were in disastrous retreat and viewed as politically dead for a generation lugging the weights of “Dubya” Bush’s misbegotten Iraq war and the worst recession in a generation.
However, for the Obama Democrats, the “hopey-changey thing” went south, following the Republican congressional victory in 2010, repeated in 2012 and 2014, despite Obama’s 2012 re-election. Democrats are forced to ruminate over “what might have been” in societal changing initiatives beyond the creation of expanded health care. The Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) passed without a single Republican vote and threw down the gauntlet between Congressional Republicans and Administration Democrats. The latter became convinced that they could execute Obama’s program objectives through executive orders and administrative/legal rulings. Infuriated Republicans consequently implacably opposed virtually anything Obama proposed either in domestic or (particularly) in foreign affairs; they essentially concluded Obama’s policies were an existential threat to America’s future.
Obama could only fantasize over what he could have done with a Canadian style parliament and Supreme Court where a majority government can drive through virtually any proposal the prime minister desires and Supreme Court justices are de facto selected by the prime minister and installed on the Court with only trivial parliamentary review, if any. It would only be human to see in Trudeau a Canadian analog holding the keys to reshaping his country’s economy, environment, and foreign policy into a society that Obama would hope to someday be a model that the United States might emulate.
In that vein, Trudeau has offered up what might ultimately be touted as the “Trudeau Doctrine” for progressive politicians around the world to embrace: inclusive growth (so expanding wealth doesn’t leave average citizens behind); openness and transparency to provide citizens clear understanding of national political action; innovation, to expand opportunity and counter complacency (which one senior Canadian politician noted was the bane of Canadian economics); and embracing diversity. All are essentially vague, but also points that Obama could doubtless endorse.
But in this style, specifically on foreign affairs, Trudeau’s policies are more congruent with Obama’s. While Harper wanted Canada to “punch above its weight,” Trudeau isn’t interested in boxing as a foreign policy analogy—rather he would prefer ice skating where the grace of the competitor performing against complex strictures gains points. Diplomacy is the Liberal game; quietly warehousing a monument to Canadian casualties in Afghanistan is another signal. The Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada ministry (now renamed “Global Affairs” for the fourth name change in a decade) is delighted—its diplomats now will have greater flexibility to pursue the art of the possible. And a desire to participate again in the United Nations is prominent; Trudeau has announced that Canada will seek the next rotating Security Council seat in 2021.
Thus Canadian withdrawal of CF-18s from the Iraq/Syria anti-Da’esh fight is irrelevant for bilateral relations with Obama. Trudeau’s implicit cancellation of Canada’s F-35 purchase isn’t important. His skeptical attitude toward “kinetic” military action telegraphs a return to the Canadian-as-Peacekeeper, but Obama’s interest in the military is peripheral at best. While Obama excoriated British PM Cameron as a free loader for not spending 2 percent of GNP on defense, he said nothing about Canada’s 1 percent defense GNP spending.
But where they tightly coincide on the soulmate level is environmental protection, “global warming,” and promotion of alternative energy directed at eliminating carbon-based fuels.
And the final opportunity for this relationship may be in a projected “Three Amigos” meeting this summer in Ottawa. Trudeau has arranged it (partly to substitute for a comparable meeting cancelled by PM Harper who viewed such a session might focus unproductively on the Keystone Pipeline). And there are heavy rumors that the occasion will also be used to accord Obama the opportunity to address Parliament—the first U.S. president to do so since Clinton in February 1995. (And perhaps this might also be the opportunity for Obama to pimp a reciprocal opportunity for Trudeau to address a joint session of Congress, an event that hasn’t happened since PM Brian Mulroney did so in April 1988.)
Perils of Justine
There are many ways to stumble and fall in Washington. And Trudeau with essentially no knowledge of Washington or U.S. politics (this was his first significant visit to the city) has no reservoir of personal experience to guide him. A good relationship with a president goes only so far (especially when the president is a lame duck Democrat and Congress is vigorously partisan Republican.) Trudeau adroitly, however, met with Congressional leaders from both parties—a de minimis step but a necessary one.
And in the height of a particularly charged presidential election campaign there are more than enough foot-in-the-mouth opportunities for a neophyte to dine upon. Indeed, such was the case during the 2000 election when the highly experienced Canadian ambassador to the U.S. was caught expressing a preference for then Vice President Gore. That made relations between Liberal Prime Minister Chretien and President George Bush fraught from the get go—and they never got better.
Hopefully, Trudeau will be careful not to overplay his hand in the period following the Official Dinner. He already came close, indeed over the line, to interfering in U.S. politics with his comments on “60 Minutes” suggesting Americans should pay more attention to foreign affairs, implicitly critical of Donald Trump. He again skated close to the line in a subsequent interview with “Power and Politics” when pushed for an opinion on Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. After providing innocuous comments regarding noninterference in U.S. domestic politics, he cited Lincoln in trusting in “the better angels of American nature.” As if some candidates were other than “better angels.”
Trudeau projects a touch of know-it-all arrogance with a snicker at current USA political and social flailing, reflecting his majority parliamentary control and ability to work his will on Canada for the next five years.
He needs to recall the United States was created partly from rejection of British interference in Colonial America’s politics. We are still not amused by the Pope suggesting that one candidate is not a “Christian” and even less by a former Mexican president using pungent expletives to describe a U.S. candidate. Even a Young Lockinvar from out of the North will not get the benefit of the doubt—at least not from Republicans.
In their delight that “Justin” enjoyed an official State Dinner, Canadians should not forget a blunt reality: Obama deliberately disrespected Prime Minister Harper during his years as Canada’s leader. During the period of Obama-Harper political overlap, State dinners were infrequent, but Obama hosted the Mexican president and Chinese leaders twice as well as French, German, British, and Japanese leaders. Never Stephen Harper.
Thus the rush to invite PM Trudeau to a State dinner immediately after his victory was less a congratulatory act than a final message of contempt/slap in the face for PM Harper. In a sense, it is akin to rewarding Obama the Nobel Peace Prize—more an illustration of hope for the future than the consequence of success in performance.
There is a small and rapidly closing window for enjoying the bilateral “bromance.”