British Prime Minister David Cameron welcomes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Downing Street on Nov. 25 (photo by Georgina Coupe/Crown Copyright via Flickr)

Canada Next: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the world stage

Political expert Peter Loewen analyzes Trudeau's performance, impact

For Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the G20 and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summits last week were an opportunity for world leaders to meet the new face of Canada. 

In between the selfie requests from delegates, being mobbed in Manila by shrieking fans and cracking jokes with President Barack Obama, Trudeau discussed refugees, economic growth and climate change and delivered a pointed message: Canada is a country that defines itself by its shared values, not its cultural differences. 

Assistant Professor Peter Loewen of political science is the director of the Centre for the Study of the United States at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. He spoke to U of T News about Trudeau’s debut on the world stage.

How did Trudeau do at the G20 and APEC, as the world grappled with terror attacks in Paris, Beirut and Mali?
I think Trudeau made a great first impression. He was well received, and he was confident, and he did this all under trying circumstances. These events are highly choreographed, which in some ways reduces risk, but they also offer limited opportunities for genuine influence, for a strong moment, or for a decisive encounter. For example, I imagine that Trudeau’s insistence that he would stand up to Putin was about as effective as Harper’s effort to do the same during their last meeting. 

So, the question is more about whether he was good enough and not about impact. Whether he had one is another matter. We shouldn’t expect too much of such meetings. Most the work is done before, so there is not a lot of room to influence outcomes. 

Now, with all of that said, there is one more final consideration. Trudeau comes into these meetings as the most junior (or among the most junior heads of government). This matters, because many of these leaders have had a lot of interaction with each other, and he’s had very little, obviously. This makes it hard to compare him with the impact that Harper might have had, for example. But it also highlights that Trudeau has a lot of room to grow, to build relationships, and to make the most out of these meetings in the future. The fact that his first meetings went well is perhaps a good sign going forward. 

How was Canada’s response on refugee resettlement and ISIS − affirming Canada’s withdrawal of air strikes and vowing to add more military trainers − received by other world leaders?
On the first issue, I suspect the White House was pleased to have Canada providing an example of an open and relatively ambitious response. The response of the American public, and especially the response of their representatives, has been, frankly, disappointing and even shocking. I can appreciate very much that the public has concerns about refugees. They don’t know the ins and outs of migration, of how terrorist acts are planned, or of how refugees are resettled. We can, for a time, forgive them their lack of information while still wishing more of them.

But for politicians to do what the US Congress has done, and do what so many governors have done, essentially saying there are no circumstances under which refugees would be welcomed and supported – that puts them very much on the wrong side of history. I imagine President Obama looks at the Canadian example with some interest and surely some envy. 

On the ISIS withdrawal of jets, I suspect this is a wait-and-see issue. Canada can make a great contribution even without fighter jets, but we will have to see what that is. We will also have to see whether Canada’s commitment changes as France increases its campaign to have other parties join the fighting more actively and more deeply. 

Did anything come out of the meeting with Obama that signals to you that there’s a changed relationship with the U.S.?
Nothing material, actually. Has Keystone XL been approved, for example? My own sense is that perhaps 95 per cent of issues between Canada and the US are determined by economic and political logics. The remaining five per cent has to do with the personalities and warmth of the two leaders. We shouldn’t expect much of these meetings and we should keep the pressure on the American government to take a reasonable approach towards the production of oil in North America.  

What are some issues Trudeau and Obama can bond over, or where they will differentiate?
I have no idea, to be honest. I often wonder how world leaders have any time for friends. It will be interesting, however, to see whether they do develop the kind of personal connections that might allow them to do some big things in the time Obama has left. I certainly think it’s the case that the relationship between Brian Mulroney and Ronald Reagan, and then George HW Bush was helpful at the margins for things like addressing acid rain and marshalling support for the first Gulf War. 

Perhaps Trudeau and Obama can develop enough of a rapport to move the needle on the five per cent of things that are really open for discussion.

(See the original of the above photo on Flickr)

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