It takes charm, plus hard work
Justin Trudeau has had an excellent couple of weeks on the foreign front. From finessing the minefield of a visit to Donald Trump in the White House, to a candlelight dinner with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he’s been hailed as “the new Barack Obama” by those searching for a progressive hope on the world stage.
That would definitely be overstating things. But the prime minister has been sure-footed so far in his dealings with the Trump administration and has made the most of Canada’s freshly signed trade deal with the European Union. It’s a symbol of Canada’s openness to the world and a signal to nervous Europeans that they still have friends in North America.
This kind of thing doesn’t just happen. It takes more than Trudeau’s undoubted personal charm to make sure things run smoothly — despite all the online chatter about his chemical effect on the likes of Ivanka Trump and Merkel herself.
What it takes is a lot of hard work behind the scenes. It’s to Trudeau’s credit that he’s put people in place able to make it happen. The groundwork for the White House visit, for example, was laid during many meetings (reportedly more than 20) between top Trudeau aides and a few key figures in the Trump entourage.
The prime minister sent his principal secretary, Gerald Butts, and chief of staff Katie Telford to establish a solid working relationship with Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and adviser, and Stephen Bannon, the controversial White House strategist.
He shuffled his cabinet in January, mainly to replace Stéphane Dion with Chrystia Freeland in foreign affairs, the theory being that Freeland can relate much more effectively with influential U.S. policy-makers. That seems to have worked out just fine.
At the same time, Canada’s ambassador to Washington, David MacNaughton, doubled down on the traditional Canadian tactic when it comes to dealing with the U.S. power structure. He made sure that key American power-brokers with shared interests — such as senators, congressmen, governors and business leaders in states that trade heavily with Canada — got on board with the message that the two countries share vital economic interests.
And when it came to the actual face-to-face encounter with Trump last week, the Trudeau team managed to involve Ivanka Trump and showcase issues related to women in business.
That, reportedly, was the work of Telford. It deftly highlighted an area that has been one of the prime minister’s most visible priorities and, more importantly, brought a family dimension to the visit. That shouldn’t be underestimated with a president who seems to operate so much in the realm of emotion.
In the end, of course, Canada’s relations with Washington and Europe will be determined by big forces and mutual interests.
But it’s worth remembering that foreign relations are also human relations. Things can go better or worse depending on how people deal with each other and how hard they work at making it succeed. So far Trudeau deserves credit on both fronts.