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How Justin Trudeau can put Canada back on Washington’s radar

Our new prime minister needs to repair Canada’s image in Washington by building relationships beyond the White House

Justin Trudeau with the U.S. Capitol Building in the background

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, seen in Washington in a file photo from 2013. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau are even. The United States’ president blocked the Keystone XL pipeline, and Canada’s new prime minister announced we would quit U.S.-led bombing in Syria and Iraq. Apparently, there are no hard feelings. In November, the two men joked on the sidelines of a summit in Asia about the inevitable salting of Trudeau’s hair and the fleeting optimism of youth. Obama said his wife, Michelle, was keen to meet fellow fashionista Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau. He invited the prime minister to visit the White House in early 2016.

If Trudeau is looking for a playbook on how to conduct relations with his country’s largest trading partner, he could study his predecessor’s approach and do the opposite. Stephen Harper’s handling of relations with the U.S. was inexcusably bad. His fatal mistake was conflating the interests of one company—TransCanada Corp.—and the interests of his country. Harper appeared to take Obama’s misgivings about TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline personally, adopting increasingly snide and antagonistic rhetoric on the subject. He wrongly assumed Democratic legislators would be cowed by the argument that Keystone would create jobs, missing the growing influence of rich donors intent on making the party greener. And, finally, Harper refused to bargain, insisting approval of Keystone was a “no-brainer.”

Trudeau will do better with Obama because they share a desire to do something about climate change. Obama is entering his final year as president, and he is running out of time to live up to his Nobel Peace Prize. The president has shown a willingness to become fast friends with new leaders who can help him; he accepted Narendra Modi’s invitation to visit New Delhi in January, even though he had hosted the Indian prime minister in Washington only months earlier. Rarely do leaders make such an effort. Trudeau should keep this in mind. Obama needs friends; Canada’s prime minister is well-placed to become one.

But there will be limits to what friendship with Obama can achieve. The politics of Washington today have no relation to any understanding of American-style democracy Trudeau might have formed in university. The swing vote no longer exists. Congress has gone tribal, complete with strict party discipline. Policy is made in caucus meetings, which is where potential irritants—such as country-of-origin labels—must be stopped. Keeping this in mind, Trudeau should get to know Paul Ryan, the similarly youthful speaker of the House of Representatives and arguably the most powerful Republican in America. Harper’s finance minister, the late Jim Flaherty, made a point of visiting Republican congressmen when he was in Washington. Flaherty was undermined by Harper’s chilly relations with the White House, but he had the right idea. Trudeau must hedge his friendship with Obama by making sure Republicans understand Canada is a non-partisan player. Unlike Obama, the Republicans aren’t going anywhere, regardless of who becomes the next president.

Friendship only gets you so far. Trudeau and his advisers must make a humble assessment of what Canada has done for its neighbour lately. Harper leaned too hard on Canada’s standing as the U.S.’s biggest trading partner. That title will soon belong to China, a symbolic shift that underlines the pivot of Washington, Wall Street and Silicon Valley to Asia, away from traditional allies and markets in the West. Trade with Canada matters, but the action is elsewhere.

Fortunately, our new prime minister glitters with the fairy dust of celebrity. In Washington, you are measured by what you bring to the table. Trudeau—for at least his first visit—will be able to summon a horde of photographers, both amateur and professional, and that commands the respect of fellow politicians. Yes, the selfie thing is getting a little tired. But for now, it’s in Canada’s interest that Trudeau do as many of them in Washington as decorum allows. It’s our comparative advantage.