US & Canada Friends Again After 20 years


At the joint news conference at the White House, Obama recalled that Trudeau - like him even years before - had come to power on a message of hope and change. Both took office as young, good-looking and charismatic figures whose political skills were underestimated by the establishment because they lacked conventional political resumes.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s trip to Washington in March 2016 is the first official visit by a Canadian leader since 1997, when erstwhile Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien visited the then Democratic President, Bill Clinton. Clinton had gushed at the time, “We have the most comprehensive ties of any two nations on earth.”

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 memoir, Common Ground. To make Trudeau feel at home, a lavish state dinner that included Canadian staples such as poutine, white chocolate snowballs and Nanaimo bars was laid out for Trudeau and his wife Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau.

Both visits – Chrétien’s and Trudeau’s - had their problems. Back in the 1990s, the top issue was enduring the boycott by the US of Cuba, which was 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 that 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.

However, there was no such problem this time, after the US and Cuba finally re-established diplomatic relations - thanks to Obama, though the US continues to maintain its commercial, economic and financial interests 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 percent below 2012 levels by 2025.

Arctic Meltdown

Agreement was also reached on the need to regulate use of the Arctic Ocean, which could be ice-free within the next few years. Concerns are supported by the fact that it is already becoming more open to both commercial shipping and international fishing fleets. Taking the initiative, the leaders pledged to protect the Arctic from overfishing and development, calling for “a binding international agreement”. In the High Arctic, the 5 countries that border the icy region have an agreement - not to exploit the fishery until they have more information on the issue. However, it does nothing to prevent the Taiwanese or other roving fleets from sailing in and scooping up marine life.

Joint action by the US and Canada is vital to address this. The two leaders also pledged to create a pan-Arctic marine protection area network, including at least 10 percent of Arctic waters and 17 percent of Arctic land mass.

The agreement is historic, a legacy of Canadian determination 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 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 USCGC 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

In both visits, there were the usual trade disputes. In 1997, it was salmon fishing; this time, lumber and milk. To protect jobs, Canada prevents trade in dairy, eggs, chickens, and does not import them from the US. No change was made here.

The irritant is the unpaid billions, the US has charged as tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber, which belong to Canada, a problem which remains unresolved, despite Trudeau’s predecessor, Stephen Harper, making a deal 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 softwood lumber with the expiration of the deal. Obama and Trudeau reached no solution this week, the leaders handing the file over to their respective trade ministers, who have 100 days to come up with ways to address the issue.

This 2006 deal was a result of Harper’s fondness for the hawkish Republican George Bush, as Harper began to remodel Canada on the world stage in the US image. Those US-Canadian leaders saw eye-to-eye, but there was no time for an official visit either way, as Bush soon left the scene.

Bush raised eyebrows when he refused to invite or accept an invitation by Harper’s predecessor, Liberal Jean Chrétien, despite Canada’s support for the US after 9/11 and on its invasion of Afghanistan. Bush was furious when Chrétien refused to join Bush’s ‘coalition of the willing’ to invade Iraq in 2003.

Obama was one of those brave American Congressmen who voted against the invasion, so he no doubt took comfort from Chrétien’s brave defiance, and was understanding of Trudeau’s insistence now that Canada’s bombing mission in Iraq and Syria is coming to an end, which US hawks have criticised.

Trudeau is keen to promote the environment, but didn’t press Obama on his equally brave nixing of the Keystone XL pipeline project to bring Canadian tar sand oil to the US. It is unlikely that Trudeau is not very fond of the idea, but he has to play politics, given the momentum created for it under Harper. Abruptly cancelling 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 as a peacenik of trying to make Canada more even-handed in its Middle East relations. His government just passed a Harper-like House of Commons resolution to condemn Canadian organisations, which support the ‘boycott of Israel’, hardly a good sign for open debate about Middle East injustices.

Ironically, Chrétien went to Washington in 1997 to protest the US boycott. Now, though the US continues its own economic boycott - despite having re-established diplomatic relations - Canada’s new bill outlaws even mentioning of the ‘b’ word against Israel, despite 22 boycotts by the Canadian government of other countries. Obama and even the students who Trudeau addressed in Washington, (possibly the main supporters of the ‘boycott Israel’ movement) were polite enough not to question this infringement of the freedom of expression.

Trudeau Dynasty

The visit was treated like a fairytale 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. 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? Americans can only bemoan their presidential system, with its arbitrary term limit on the presidency, unlike Canada’s parliamentary system, where a proven leader like Obama could stay on at a time when there is no good candidate to continue his agenda. Trudeau made no comment about the current primary battles of the Republicans and Democrats, other than that he looked forward to working with whomever US voters elected to the White House.

Trudeau nonetheless, had much to say of interest to Americans during the crucial primary season. He explained how he had refused to indulge in negative ads, scare tactics or personal attacks during Canada’s national elections last summer and autumn, despite the Conservative dirty tricks. Canadians were growing tired of being cynical about politics, he told a student audience. Instead, he wanted to highlight differences in policy positions. He talked about the injustice of stripping citizenship for those convicted of terrorism.

“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. He called on everyone to respond to a rise of xenophobia in the United States and elsewhere. “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.” A shining example of princely wisdom!

He diplomatically avoided attacking Hillary Clinton for voting for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 either out of hawkishness or cowardice. The Republican hopefuls are hardly to Trudeau’s taste either, with candidates’ threatening to tear up Obama’s openings to both Cuba and Iran, and talk of bombing terrorists into oblivion. Will there be another visit to Washington by Canada’s de facto monarch, or will the ‘spring thaw’ come to an end in November?

Obama as Mentor

At their joint news conference at the White House, Obama recalled that Trudeau - like him even years before - had come to power on a message of hope and change. Both took office as young, good-looking and charismatic figures whose political skills were underestimated by the establishment because they lacked conventional political résumés.

“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 said. “On the big looming issues on the horizon, it is vital for us to work together because the more aligned we are the more we can shape the international agenda. Climate change is such an example,” Obama said. He carefully avoided mention of ongoing US policies in Afghanistan, Iraq-Syria, and Guantánamo - legacies of Bush that Obama was unable to bring to any peaceful resolution.

The US no longer “can shape the international agenda” on issues of war and peace after its post-9/11 disasters, and it is pointless to try to call on Canada to rescue it there. Canada can only use its friendly relations to politely call the US to account, to stress Canadian traditions of peaceful resolution of problems.

Trudeau’s honeymoon with the US could be coming to an end. 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. Obama may be a lame duck, as his opponents say, but this duck still flies when it comes to international attention, and he is using every minute left to leave his legacy. 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 Chrétien in 1995.

Obama’s Real Successor?

In his last years in office, Obama is already reflecting on the ‘bigger picture.’ A Canada-US shared vision applies to policies of economic inclusion and diversity, Obama suggested. The average American and Canadian worker needed to be assured of future prosperity. “If they see societies in which a very few are doing better and better and middle class and working people are falling farther and farther behind that destabilises the economy. It also starts destabilising our politics and our democracies.”

Obama did not refer in his press conference to Trudeau’s decision to personally welcome Syrian refugees at Toronto’s airport last December, though he commended him at the state dinner. “Diversity can be a source of strength,” he said wistfully. Obama always must choose his words to avoid his many minefields at home, including the proposal by Donald Trump to ban all Arab immigration. More than half of US governors oppose allowing refugees to settle in their states.

These liberal principles are Obama’s legacy. The visit did not produce any resolutions on prosaic trade matters such as softwood lumber, but it did cement the mentor relationship that has developed between the two leaders since their first meeting last November. The press has called their good relations a ‘bromance’, but mentor and even successor seem more accurate.

Obama, who was only 47 years old when he was elected, now seasoned in the heat of US and world politics 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 – it’s a great comfort to me.”

Trudeau is hopeful about this historic moment for both countries: “On our own, we make progress. But together, we make history.”

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.