By Eric Walberg
Trudeau’s budding “bromance” with US President Barak Obama in March marks the first official visit by a Canadian leader since 1997, when Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien visited the last charismatic Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Both visits were friendly–Clinton gushed at the time, “We have the most comprehensive ties of any two nations on earth.” Chretien was not invited by Clinton’s successor, George Bush, who was furious when Chretien refused to join his “coalition of the willing” to invade Iraq. More like ‘bro-hate’.
Trudeau’s new-found mentor had some witty advice. Obama joked about Trudeau’s previous jobs: “If things get out of hand, remember the prime minister used to work as a bouncer,” referring to Trudeau’s reminiscences in his memoirs Common Ground. He also laid on a lavish state dinner for Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau, featuring Canadian staples poutine, Nanaimo bars and white chocolate snowballs.
Both visits had their problems. Back in the 1990s, the top item was the enduring boycott by the US of Cuba, by then almost four decades old. Despite being a fellow liberal, US President Clinton was lamely defending the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Libertad) Act, passed by Congress the previous year, which allowed Americans to sue foreign companies doing business in Cuba. Governments around the world condemned the act, arguing that the law ran counter to the spirit of international law and sovereignty.
This time, there was no such problem, after the US and Cuba finally reestablished diplomatic relations–thanks to Obama, though the US continues to maintain its commercial, economic, and financial embargo for US corporations. Environmental problems were the main topic.
Trudeau called environmental threats the “defining issue of our time.” Ahead of the meeting, a joint statement on environmental cooperation announced that the US and Canada would cut methane emissions by 40-45% below 2012 levels, by 2025.
Agreement was also reached on the need to regulate use of the Arctic Ocean, which could be ice-free within the next few years. It is already becoming more open to both commercial shipping and international fishing fleets, and the leaders pledged to protect the Arctic from overfishing and development, calling for “a binding international agreement”. In the High Arctic, there is an agreement between the five countries that border the Arctic not to exploit that fishery until we know more, but it does nothing to prevent the Taiwanese or other roving fleets from sailing in and scooping up marine life.
The new agreement is historic, a legacy of Canadian doggedness in the face of US intimidation. During the negotiations leading up to the drafting of the UN Charter on the Law of the Sea (1994), Canada argued that the Northwest Passage was not a true strait, and that therefore the rules that guarantee the right of passage through international straits (such as the Strait of Gibraltar or the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf) do not apply. The United States responded in 1985 by sending an icebreaker, the Polar Sea, to traverse the Arctic from Greenland to Alaska, without bothering to ask Canada’s permission
The Conservative Mulroney government ordered increased patrols and the construction of a new fleet of Arctic icebreakers. The US backed down, and in 1988 signed an accord in which Washington agreed to ask Canada’s permission before making such a voyage in future. That incident prompted Canada to declare its sovereignty over the entire Arctic archipelago and all the waters within it. A new international agreement is long overdue, with Russia, Norway and Denmark all having their sovereignty claims.
Lumber, oil and new Cubas
On both visits, there were the usual trade disputes. In 1997, it was salmon fishing; this time, lumber. The irritant is the billions the US has charged as tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber, a problem which remains unresolved, despite Trudeau’s predecessor, Stephen Harper, making a deal with Bush back in 2006. The US reluctantly gave up most of the $5 billion in Canadian revenues, but kept $1-billion in uncollected duties on the table, and forced Canada to agree to a tax/quota system that was “a bad deal for Ontario and for the rest of Canada,” according to United Steel Workers Western Canada Director Steve Hunt.
Another trade war looms over lumber with the expiration of the deal, as Obama and Trudeau reached no solution there. Their respective trade ministers were given 100 days to come up with a solution.
Obama was one of those brave American Congressmen who voted against Bush’s Iraq invasion, and took comfort from Chretien’s brave defiance at the time. He was understanding of Trudeau’s insistence now that Canada’s bombing mission in Iraq end, which US hawks have criticized.
Trudeau is keen to promote the environment, but didn’t press Obama on his equally brave nixing of the Keystone pipeline plan to bring Canadian tar sand oil to the US. It is unlikely that Trudeau likes the idea, but he has to play politics, given the momentum created for it under Harper. Abruptly canceling it would alienate his business backers. Better to stall with more “environmental impact” studies. Maybe it will just fizzle on its own ‘merits’.
Another tricky issue for Trudeau is his continuation of Harper’s zealous pro-Israel policy, again, despite his solemn avowals to make Canada more responsible internationally. His government just passed a Harper-like House of Commons resolution to condemn Canadian organizations which support the “boycott of Israel”, hardly a good sign for open debate about Middle East injustices.
Ironically, Chretien went to Washington in 1997 to protest the US boycott of Cuba. Now, Canada’s new bill outlaws even any mention of the ‘b’ word against Israel. This, despite 22 boycotts by the Canadian government of other countries. Obama and even the students who Trudeau addressed in Washington, were polite enough not to question this infringement of freedom of expression.
The visit was treated like a fairy tale in the media, reminiscent of the days of JFK. The ‘royal’ visit by the new Canadian dynasty, Trudeau father to Trudeau son, created a collective sigh of nostalgia and envy among Americans, whose political life looks bleak in comparison. Pierre Trudeau dominated Canadian politics from the late 1960s till the 1980s, and the stage is set for the princely reign of his son in the 2010s and 2020s.
What kind of relationship is in store for the two countries as the equally legendary US president retires this year? Trudeau made no comment about the current primary battles of the Republicans and Democrats, but had much to say of interest to Americans during the crucial primary season. He explained how in his own campaign last summer, he refused to indulge in negative ads, scare tactics or personal attacks, despite the Conservative dirty tricks. Canadians were growing tired of being cynical about politics, he told a student audience.
“That is a perfect narrative for the politics of fear and aggression, and yet it’s me sitting here as prime minister of Canada and not Stephen Harper,” he said, a subtle warning against Republican scare mongering. “The answer is not to tell people who are angry that they are wrong, but rather to understand the reasons underlying their fears, anger and anxiety and then work together to face challenges.” Princely wisdom.
Obama as mentor
At their joint news conference, Obama recalled that Trudeau–like Obama seven years before–had come to power on a message of hope and change. Obama, who was only 47 years old when he was elected, has emerged as a role model for the 45-year-old Trudeau, just as Justin is starting his own rule.
Trudeau likes the family analogy, toasting the two nations as “siblings” at the White House dinner. “To be able to count on a friend who has lived through many of the things I am about to encounter on the political stage, on the international stage, is a great comfort to me. I’m always pleased to hear from President Obama about how he’s dealt with difficult issues of the past because he is a man of both tremendous heart and tremendous intellect.”
Trudeau’s honeymoon with the US could be coming to an end, but not with his political soul mate. In the few short months before Obama retires, there is still time to advance an agenda which the next US president will at least have to contend with. This will include an address to Canada’s parliament later this spring. That would make him the first US president to do so since Clinton was invited by Chretien in 1995. Trudeau is hopeful about this historic moment for both leaders–and both countries: “On our own, we make progress. But together, we make history.”