PETER MCKENNA: ‘Trump whisperer’ role

Is it a good place for Trudeau to be during rough NAFTA negotiations?

Published on September 11, 2017

U.S. President Donald Trump, left, greets Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a visit to the White House earlier this year.

©(CP Photo)

With the NAFTA renegotiations off to a rough start, and given his calculated efforts to ingratiate himself to U.S. President Donald Trump, perhaps Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should take a page from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s book.  

At the beginning of their first encounter at Trump Tower in New York, Abe presented then-U.S. president-elect Trump with a $4,000 gold, anti-slice golf driver. How about a gold-platted hockey stick from Trudeau?
Recall that in the post-1945 period, Canada consciously positioned itself on the world stage to play the role of interlocutor, mediator and bridge-builder. Even today, it is still seen by other countries as a force for bringing disparate parties together, helping to resolve seemingly intractable international disputes and bridging gaps between governments.
Remember, too, that one of the reasons why Canada joined the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1990 was because member states from Latin America saw Ottawa as a key intermediary between the region and the United States. In fact, Ottawa was a facilitator, to a certain extent, in the 2014 U.S.-Cuba move to normalize that dysfunctional bilateral relationship - hosting a series of key diplomatic meetings in Canada.
It is also worth emphasizing that many countries around the world believe that Canada has a privileged position vis-à-vis the United States. Accordingly, political leaders oftentimes look to the Canadian prime minister to carry their particular message to the White House.
Today, this seems to be the case more than ever. Governments on both sides of the Atlantic would like PM Trudeau to serve as a messenger and go-between with the Trump administration.
The Europeans and Latin Americans, in particular, are turning to Trudeau to use his good chemistry with Trump to influence the thinking of the U.S. President. In other words, they hope that his “in” in Washington will put him in a strong position to alter Trump’s worldview and his “America First” policy agenda.
So does Trudeau really want to play the role of “Trump Whisperer?” Is it a good place for him to be during the NAFTA negotiations? And, more important, will it serve Canadian interests well?
Playing the role of global emissary (particularly on such sensitive cases as North Korea and Venezuela) may bring an initial feeling of international influence and importance to Canadians. But it could have a deleterious impact on Canada-U.S. relations over the longer term.
Clearly, such an approach is certainly not without significant risks. One potential problem is that Canada could find itself unable to please either Washington or whichever region or country Mr. Trudeau is interceding on behalf of
Another weakness of this strategy is its potential to be counterproductive in terms of Canada’s overall standing in Washington - especially if the Trump White House has no interest in having Ottawa play the role of intermediary. To be sure, if President Trump does not want to bridge the gap with other countries, the only thing that such a role would accomplish would be to annoy and anger official Washington and thus risk souring the Canada-U.S. relationship during this particularly sensitive period.
Trudeau does not want to be seen by the Trump administration as someone who sticks his nose into matters that do not directly concern him. What he wants is to make Canada useful to the White House without sacrificing Canadian interests, independence and its international integrity.
While Mr. Trudeau may wish to advise other governments on how best to approach or manage relations with the Trump White House, he should be very judicious and skillful in doing so. Interceding on behalf of other countries may have been permissible in the past, but in the era of Trumpian chaos it would not be a wise strategy for Canada. He should politely inform other world leaders that they themselves should bring their own concerns to the attention of the U.S. President.
This type of mediation strategy, then, could easily hobble Canada’s ability to secure its own NAFTA objectives and demands in official Washington. Indeed, Canada has only so much diplomatic credit in the Washington bank. And it can now ill-afford to squander it in the defence of other countries’ interests.

- Peter McKenna is professor and chair of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.