The soft power of Justin Trudeau, Canada’s viral PM

As Justin Trudeau takes his branding tour to the United States, the question emerges: how long will the sheen from this ’new Canada’ last?
Justin Trudeau
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leaves Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Wednesday, November 4, 2015, after being sworn in as Canada’s 23rd Prime Minister. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

So, our panda-hugging, Vogue-mugging60 Minutes-loving Prime Minister is heading to the White House State dinner, riding on polls so high he can see over top of Donald Trump’s ego. But the opposition keep asking, how much substance will come from all the style?

It is the most important question—especially as Trudeau needs to get results on everything from cross-border trade and travel, security and climate change—but still, it’s hard not to sense the sourness of envy behind the question. That’s not surprising coming from two parties not afflicted with the problem of over praise. Conservatives will admit that their campaign criticism of Trudeau as shallow has reluctantly given way to political admiration for his mastery of the image, the use of what Joseph Nye first described as soft power. Soft power calculates cultural influence, and whether in Trudeau’s media machine or when he greeted the Syrian refugees at the airport, Trudeau has deployed it as his chief diplomatic weapon.

The closest parallel is another Canadian soft power phenom, Drake, who not only rebranded Toronto as the 6ix, but strategically designed things like his “Hotline Bling” video so it could be shared, hacked, and mimicked. Trudeau is now our first “Viral PM,” creating political “moments” specifically so they become sharable—his hugs, his hand-on-the-heart gestures, selfies, Twitter town halls. He is PM Bling.

When Trudeau went to the world economic forum in Davos and said that Canada was not just about natural resources but about resourcefulness, his critics took it as a shot at the beleaguered energy industry. What they missed was that Trudeau had just embarked on a major rebranding of Canada on the international stage, as an open, progressive country, with more to it than the world may currently appreciate. He wants to sell airplanes and technology as well as wood and oil.

If at times all this seems too cute by half or—like when Trudeau lectures Americans on how they ought to pay more attention to the world—inappropriately smug, it is still important. As any ambassador to the United States will tell you, winning attention to Canadian issues in the U.S. is harder than selling hockey in Hawaii. The number one job is just getting busy U.S. legislators to stop and listen to Canada’s story so they have a deeper understanding of the importance of U.S.-Canada relations on energy, trade, security and tourism. If Trump has taught the world anything, it is that celebrity is a political currency that is valued very highly. Trudeau’s image isn’t a two-bit coin; it’s political bullion.

Trudeau is far from the first politician to use personality as a national branding tool. Back in 1997, after Tony Blair was first elected, he presented a new wave of optimism called Cool Britannia. It was a kind of second British invasion of North American shores, as bands like Oasis and the Spice Girls reframed our idea of the old Union Jack, which had come to represent darker Thatcherite strikes and strife in Ireland. Under Blair, it came to reflect a new and bold international confidence.

A decade later the economically sputtering Japan had its own Cool moment. In a well-known 2002 Foreign Policy Article, John McGray coined the term Gross National Cool to describe Japan’s cultural influence on the world. From anime and video games, to Hello Kitty and Pokémon, McGray argued Cool Japan had real economic clout. It transformed into a government-promoted cultural export policy. “National cool ought to help Japan infuse its universities, research labs, companies, and arts with foreign talent,” McGray wrote in a follow-up piece in 2009.

The only thing was, it didn’t happen. Japan wasn’t open to immigrants and its famous insularity meant it failed to capitalize on its cultural power effectively. Cool Britannia also fizzled as an idea, along with Tony Blair’s reputation.

Even Barack Obama’s promise of change never “healed” America as he first promised.  It is more divided than ever. So, as important as soft power is, there is no guarantee Trudeau’s Cool Canada moment—which includes that quintessentially catchy pop song by Justin Bieber, “Sorry”—will last, or how much impact it will have on the U.S.

Related: Canada cares too much to be truly cool

After all, Canadian and American values are increasingly growing apart. Where we once feared that globalization and free trade would create a North American sameness, the opposite has happened. Pollster Michael Adams, the president of the Environics Institute, has long studied comparisons between the U.S. and Canada, and in 2012, when he last conducted an extensive study, he confirmed how different we are. “In spite of Harper, Canadian social values were and are still largely liberal-progressive,” Adams told me. “We stand out from Americans on the degree of our positive attitudes toward immigrants but also on a range of social issues, from gender equality and same-sex relationships to the size and role of government. We have more faith in our institutions and feel they are still susceptible to improvement and reform and need not be burned to the ground before they can change.”

Adams argues that while some young American millennials are more tolerant and positive towards governments than their parents, overall a Trump-style anger is emerging that may prove impossible for a guy like Trudeau to influence. “A backlash constituency powered largely by white men is lashing out at immigration, diversity, feminism, globalization, black response to racism, and Barack Obama, while Bernie Sanders is capturing his own strain of backlash against globalization, Wall Street, the one per cent, corporate political donors, and inequality itself,” Adams says. Canada has responded to many of these same external threats and forces in the exact opposite manner.

For Adams, America’s exceptionalism is now countered by a more defined sense of Canadian exceptionalism, even if, by sheer dint of size and influence, the world is far more interested in theirs than ours. But America’s path serves as a warning to Trudeau as he raises expectations and collects headlines.

“Both Trudeau and Obama were elected on ‘hope and change’ themes,” the former Canadian ambassador to the U.S. Derek Burney told me. “The expectations were excessive for Obama, but his legacy of achievement—domestic and global—is thin and we are seeing the angry result from the public in elections this year. It remains to be seen how long the high gloss will last for Justin Trudeau.”

Then, like the true hard-nosed diplomat he was, Burney cut through the media crap about Cool Canada and the frippery about soft power. “Governance is about more than style,” he said. “At some point, you have to deliver.”