Trudeau's budding "bromance" with US President Barak Obama in March marks the first official visit by a Canadian leader since 1997, when Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien
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 memoirs Common Ground. He also laid on a lavish state dinner for Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau, featuring Canadian staples poutine, Nanaimo bars and white chocolate snowballs.
Both visits had their problems. Back in the 1990s, the top item was the enduring boycott by the US of Cuba, 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, which 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.
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% below 2012 levels, by 2025.
The new agreement is historic, a legacy of Canadian doggedness 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 that 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 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
On both visits, there were the usual trade disputes. In 1997, it was salmon fishing; this time, lumber. The irritant is the billions the US has charged as tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber, a problem which remains unresolved, despite Trudeau's predecessor, Stephen Harper, making a deal with Bush 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 lumber with the expiration of the deal, as Obama and Trudeau reached no solution there. Their respective trade ministers were given 100 days to come up with a solution.
Obama was one of those brave American Congressmen who voted against Bush's Iraq invasion, and took comfort from Chretien's brave defiance at the time. He was understanding of Trudeau's insistence now that Canada's bombing mission in Iraq end, which US hawks have criticized.
Trudeau is keen to promote the environment, but didn't press Obama on his equally brave nixing of the Keystone pipeline plan to bring Canadian tar sand oil to the US. It is unlikely that Trudeau likes the idea, but he has to play politics, given the momentum created for it under Harper. Abruptly canceling 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 to make Canada more responsible internationally. His government just passed a Harper-like House of Commons resolution to condemn Canadian organizations which support the "boycott of Israel", hardly a good sign for open debate about Middle East injustices.
Ironically, Chretien went to Washington in 1997 to protest the US boycott of Cuba. Now, Canada's new bill outlaws even any mention of the 'b' word against Israel. This, despite 22 boycotts by the Canadian government of other countries. Obama and even the students who Trudeau addressed in Washington, were polite enough not to question this infringement of freedom of expression.