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Trudeau and Obama have a long list of issues to discuss, says U of T’s Peter Loewen

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (seen here recently announcing a $20 million grant to U of T's Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine) is expected to get along well with President Obama (photo by Johnny Guatto)

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau begins his three-day visit to Washington on Wednesday, he’ll be feted at a lavish White House state dinner – the first for a Canadian leader in 19 years.

With Trudeau’s star power on the rise and a 60 Minutes interview that aired this past weekend, there’s heightened American interest in our prime minister. U of T News spoke to political science associate professor Peter Loewen, director of Munk's Centre for the Study of the United States, about Trudeau’s celebrity status and how it can work to Canada’s advantage.

What is behind the Trudeau appeal at this time? Can it help Canada?

There are a few factors here, I suspect. First, our politics are increasingly focused on elements of celebrity. Mr. Trudeau can deliver on these elements. He’s well-spoken, good-looking, and he has a wonderfully charming family. Second, up against the current crop of American presidential candidates, he must be a refreshing face. The Democrats are currently choosing between two candidates who are 68 and 74 years old. The Republicans are choosing between a vulgar and brash 69-year-old businessman and various younger opponents who, in my estimation, seem either shallow or rather unlikeable. What a cast! Against this, we have a Canadian prime minister who is refined, polite, and likeable. He embodies general change. Now, whether this star power will do anything to move the needle on the files that are important to Canadians remains to be seen. I suspect that once in the Oval Office, it doesn’t matter too much how charming you are or how nice is your family!

What are some of the issues that Obama and Trudeau will be discussing?

I imagine there will be a long list. In my estimation, the story that is not told enough about Canadian-American relations is how well they operate. We have a border over which immense amounts of goods are traded, most often with little impediment. Increasingly, we also see the free movement of citizens over these borders. And, we have unfathomable amounts of cultural exchange (though many rightly worry that this is too one-directional and occasionally overwhelming). Now, I don’t expect them to spend time on the 90 per cent of things which are going well, but I do hope there will be some emphasis in the coverage of the Canadian visit!

Not all is rosy, of course. There are some points of contention which we can imagine will be points of discussion. First, the U.S. government was rightly upset over Canada’s withdrawal from the bombing mission against ISIS. Whatever the merits of Canada’s current position – and there are merits, to be sure – the process was one that was not fair to our allies, who rightly expect clarity and purpose when undertaking a large collective military effort. Second, Canada and the U.S. are both in the final stages of ratifying the Trans Pacific Partnership. Mr. Trudeau likely hopes to push this agreement through Parliament without large degrees of debate or amendment. That’s possible in our system. It is not in the American congressional framework, so I imagine there will be some discussion of how the agreement can be ratified in both countries without carve outs in the U.S. causing too much friction in Canada. Finally, Canada still has landlocked oil in Alberta. It appears more difficult by the day to imagine how a pipeline will be built to move this oil. Mr. Trudeau will likely take at least one more kick at the can on the Keystone XL pipeline. At this point, that appears as achievable as retrofitting pipelines for Energy East or running oil over the Coastal mountains.

Can we expect any agreements to come out of the visit?

To be honest, I don’t know. I imagine there will be very positive language about the Canada-U.S. relationship and any disagreements will be downplayed.

How would you describe the Obama-Trudeau relationship. Do they get along? And what about the presidential contenders: will Trudeau be visiting any?

 I imagine Obama and Trudeau get along just fine, but I also suspect that just getting along with a president won’t do all that much if American interests are opposed to Canadian interests. These bilateral negotiations are serious business, and merely being friends is not enough to move the needle, especially for a president up against an oppositional and difficult Congress.  As they say, if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.

As for presidential candidates, if I were Trudeau I wouldn’t get too close to the Democratic contest, unless he can meet with both candidates. There’s nothing to be gained in meeting with candidates in a race that has farther to go than most realize.