In his 1961 visit to the Canadian Parliament, President John F. Kennedy described the Canadian-American relationship in the following terms: “Geography has made us neighbors. History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners and necessity has made us allies.” Last week’s Canada-U.S. summit and the White House state dinner held for the new Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, reminded us how important the relationship is, and how it is too often forgotten or taken for granted. President Obama’s invitation to a state dinner, the first in 19 years, was seen as welcome news by Canadians.
Media coverage showed two individuals along with their respective spouses obviously comfortable with each other and clearly enjoying the limelight together. In Canada, it was front-page news, and, while the U.S. coverage was more modest, it is clear that the U.S. media was curious and fascinated by the freshly-elected young Prime Minister. Possessing strong communication skills of his own, Prime Minister Trudeau seemed at ease with the American president, and was more than willing to pursue a rather ambitious agenda dealing with border issues, cross-border security, trade, shared concerns about climate change and the Arctic, and the ever-present softwood lumber dispute.
From all indications, the negotiations resulted in some progress and results. While these summits often involve the usual diplomatic language of intentions, process, and the occasional agreement on next steps, it was apparent that both leaders wanted to reset the relationship, and not just for the three-day visit.
Granted, as cynics and skeptics delighted in pointing out, Trudeau is just beginning his mandate and the Obama administration is in its last year, making the apparent gains potentially fragile or short-lived. However, the reality is that we have the largest commercial relationship in the world, and that is not set to change. We share a common border (longest in the world), shared security concerns, similar values, and approximately $2.4 billion of trade occurs daily.
Add to this the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA signed in 1993), which has proven to be generally a win-win situation (despite what American voters are hearing from the campaign trail). Over 9 million jobs in the U.S. are directly related to NAFTA.; Canada is the number one export market for 35 U.S. states, and number 2 for 10 others. And products between the countries fit into a broader and efficient bilateral supply chain that fuels commerce between the two countries and globally. While there are some disputes in areas like in the softwood lumber trade, occasional “buy American” provisions, and “country of origin” labelling in the meat sector, we remain reliable partners with the ability to compromise and find solutions. It is fair to say that, more than ever, JFK’s characterization of the relationship adequately describes the nature and depth of the Trudeau-Obama talks.
Discussions also centered on the importance to have a North American strategy on climate change. Both Trudeau and Obama were instrumental in the Paris Accords of last December. Security was also addressed in ways to make the border more efficient, yet reliably secure. New provisions for pre-clearance for air and rail travel were also welcomed by Canadians.
But of course, even the non-cynic can’t help but notice the clouds of the U.S. primary over this early spring summit. Clearly, the Republican primary season displays serious differences between those candidates and the Prime Minister’s government to the north on subjects such as climate change, free trade, and Canada’s Syrian refugee policy. But with countries that have so much shared interest and deep connections, agreements of this nature are difficult to unravel. It is still too early to assess what could happen to the US-Canadian relationship should a Donald Trump or Ted Cruz become the 45th President. As former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney once observed, the Canadian-U.S. relationship transcends the political leaders of the day, but a positive personal connection between our Prime Minister and your President surely enhances it.
Clearly, the rise to power of Justin Trudeau has changed the dynamics between the two northern-most North American countries. Many in Canada acknowledge that the relationship between former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Obama had noticeably cooled in recent years despite a positive beginning. Since elected in October 2015, Prime Minister Trudeau has been in numerous international forums outlining his vision of Canada’s role in the world. His concerns for climate change, the importance of peacekeeping, enhancing trade possibilities, working for a more secure world, and being a potential peace-broker in global multilateral organizations are very much in line with how Canadians see their country in an international setting—and parallel in many ways how Obama and his supporters see the world as well. Last week’s Trudeau-Obama summit, despite its potential limitations, made Canadians hopeful for the future.