Trudeau in Washington

When Trudeau meets Trump: advice from an ex-ambassador

The last time a first bilateral meeting was so politically fraught, Bush was president—and Michael Kergin was our envoy to the U.S.

There will be the handshake photo-op, the first private conversation, and then the artful dodging (or clumsy fumbling) from the lectern when reporters get their questions in. And the Canadian ambassador, who sweated buckets trying to make this as smooth a PM-president meeting as possible, will spend the next weeks or months reaping the kudos from a good meeting or picking up the pieces of a lousy one, and sweating more about every detail that the media and Question Period crew may have overlooked.

From 2000 to 2005, Michael Kergin was that man, serving as Canada’s ambassador to the United States during two first meetings: one between George W. Bush and Jean Chretien, and another with Bush and Paul Martin. Those meetings may have been the last times a first bilateral summit have been so deeply politically fraught: as the Republican Bush fomented support for a missile defence system, the Liberal PM Chretien, who had enjoyed a friendly relationship with Bush’s predecessor Bill Clinton, made clear the philosophical gulf between the two by declining to endorse it. Martin then met the 43rd president amid the fallout of Chretien’s refusal to participate in America’s war in Iraq.

But the aw-shucks Bush would likely seem positively professorial when compared with the White House’s new occupant. Ahead of Monday’s encounter between Donald Trump and Justin Trudeau, Maclean’s asked him about what Trudeau must anticipate, and what he must avoid, with the country’s eyes on him.

Q: How important are first impressions?

A: Think of two businesspeople—one’s trying to sell, one’s trying to buy, and know they are important clients to each other. It’s essentially a get-acquainted meeting. One doesn’t really expect any great deliverables from something like that. It’s getting the measure of each other.

With Mr. Chretien and Bush, they were very similar people. Bush is very approachable, Chretien’s very approachable. They got along extremely well; both had a strong interest in baseball. They both had tremendous political war stories which they regaled each other with. In those meetings, we kind of just let the two principals get to know each other. George W., who is much maligned as being not a very bright man, actually was very well briefed with (Vice President Dick) Cheney there, and had a pretty good sense of some of the issues we were concerned about. I’m not so sure Mr. Trump would be or not. [Trudeau and Trump] have certain things in common: they both are celebrities. Both use social media in a very big way. Both scored a big upset. I wouldn’t expect anything coming out of that as ‘we’re not going to negotiate that’ or ‘yes, we are going to negotiate NAFTA and this is what we intend to do.’ I’d be surprised, put it that way.

MORE: The five most pressing issues in Canadian-U.S. relations

Q: What would be a sign of success for Canada?

A: I hope he doesn’t hold Mr. Trudeau’s hand like he did with Theresa May. I hope he spells Mr. Trudeau’s name properly in the communiqués. That would be progress, I suppose. I would think that the body language and the degree of interaction in the press conference would be positive, and that’s what we want to see. I would be surprised by anything specific: he’ll say Canada’s a great country, tremendous allies, great people up there. But again, I may be understating or underestimating what might come out of this.

Q: I wonder if they’ll get into a competition about who has better hair.

A: Well, we know I guess which one isn’t dyed. We forget that Trump is the oldest [first-term] president the country’s ever had.

LISTEN: On Maclean’s politics podcast, ex-ambassador Michael Wilson on the meeting

Q: We’ve heard so much about the balance, where Canada must protect its trade relationship and also stand up for certain values. Is there a point at which you would advise Trudeau standing up and saying there are certain issues Canada cannot sit down on?

A: I think you just pointed to one of the most difficult balances Trudeau’s going to have to find: how to deal with potential outrageousness Trump may produce, while refraining from goading him in a way that won’t be productive.

Trudeau has been extremely disciplined here, as has his cabinet, for which I really give him credit—for not commenting on issues that are exclusively of U.S. jurisdiction, but are somewhat anathema if we ourselves were to apply those kind of practices, like the refugee ban and taking shots at the judiciary. These are pretty outrageous comments to make, but those are U.S. problems. The rubber hits the road if Trump then somehow turns his sights on Canada, as he has with Mexico, Australia and Germany, and takes some gratuitous comments on Canada’s laxity on security or that Canada is not pulling its weight and has to do more in NATO, and so on. At that point, the pressure is on Trudeau politically, both from the media in Canada, from the opposition, maybe from his own party members, to shoot back. Trudeau has to defend Canadian interests and values. But he has to do it in a way that doesn’t say that Trump is stupid or outrageous or completely xenophobic—staying away from the epithets, and restricting his comments to areas where there’s either false information, fake news, alternative facts, etcetera, about Canada.

MORE: How Trudeau’s cabinet stacks up with Trump’s team

Q: From a diplomatic perspective, which part is more important: the part where cameras are looking at the handshake and the niceties and the press conference, or is it what they talk about and how they comport behind closed doors?

A: Both are equally important. In terms of behind the doors, how Trump reacts to Trudeau privately and if he conveys behind-the-doors messaging that this is a country that’s serious, that this is a guy he can do business with, we can have some differences but we can work them through—that sends a very powerful image to the bureaucracy and to those guys who have to implement this stuff. That’s very important in terms of our files not falling to the bottom of the in-basket, if Trump wants to be cooperative instead of antagonistic. As opposed to Australia. Which, by the way, is really really important that you deal with Trump either by letter or by personal contact. Trying to deal with him on telephones or through the media is not a good idea.

It’s important what’s in front of the cameras because that’s what the media and political side pick up. If Trudeau has a fairly cooperative press conference and Trump sounds like he’s fairly informed, he’s actually read his notes and can talk somewhat knowledgeably about Canada, that will be good for Trudeau on the politics of it. If Trump comes across as not interested or not particularly aware of what’s going on in Canada, the media’s going to pick up and say, ‘this is going to be a problematic relationship.’

MORE: Why Canada’s economy has plenty to fear from Trump

Q: This is Canada against the superpower. Do we have cards to play or leverage in this relationship?

A: Inevitably if an economy is 1/10th the size of the other, and 70 per cent of our exports are to the United States and only 20 per cent to Canada, you’re in a weaker position. There’s no hiding that.

Thirty-five states have Canada as their largest export market. Let’s say we get into a trade war with the United States—hopefully not, but let’s say. Many states in the union are going to have trouble and more costs getting their stuff up to Canada. If we make the border a little thicker in terms of tariffs, and hit back, that will start to impact the states, in particular large business interests that are in Canada. And that starts to put indirect pressure on the White House.

The other aspect of this is if they start to wonder about security and Canada’s refugee policy. There’s 9,000 kilometres of border. And they can’t police that. No way. So they’re very vulnerable to Canadian cooperation on the border. You can’t build walls along water. I remember Brian Mulroney saying, famously: you’re lucky to not have Russia on your northern border.

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Q: If you’re standing there in the curtains by Trudeau in the press conference, what’s the one thing you hope he doesn’t do or say?

A: Trudeau’s not somebody’s who’s going to make strange faces if Trump says something rude. Trudeau’s very aware of his personal image.

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