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jeffrey simpson

Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson.The Globe and Mail

It was a fine day for Canada-U.S. relations in Washington, from the public staging to the detailed agreements, a salutary reminder of the enduring friendship and shared values of the two countries.

For a brief moment, personalities and politics aligned in what might be called a high point of cross-border political liberalism, personified by Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama.

Awkward issues were airbrushed – the rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, the looming resumption of softwood lumber battles, the withdrawal of Canadians from a fighting mission in Iraq, Beaufort Sea border disagreements, the Northwest Passage – because, as was appropriate, attention was focused on issues of joint interest and agreement.

In the U.S. system, where things Canadian seldom stir the national government, Mr. Obama's invitation to Mr. Trudeau sent a signal throughout the government: Work to make the visit a success, not just in optics but in substance.

And so it turned out to be: a collection of straightforward but meaningful announcements to work together on climate change, to do things in a more co-ordinated way in the Arctic and to try once again to unclog holdups at the border.

None of these issues resembles the geopolitical challenges with which the United States grapples daily. They are of the "Oh no, here come the Canadians again" kind: a list of cross-border matters unlikely to stir the Washington political world or bureaucracy. The issues are of some consequence, more for Canada than for the United States, and a presidential invitation causes movement that either would not happen at all, or would take much more time.

It is a pity for Mr. Trudeau that his political soulmate in the White House will be President for only another 10 months; promises Mr. Obama made Thursday might be modified or completely undone by the next occupant of the Oval Office.

This is especially true of climate-change commitments, because the Republican Party leadership resolutely opposes serious action against the threat, in many cases denying its existence. And Democrat Hillary Clinton, although she says the right things about the problem, has not expended much political capital on the issue.

Neither did Barack Obama during his first term and during his second election campaign. It was only after being safely re-elected that he began to highlight the issue, identifying it as a "legacy" issue for his presidency. (That "legacy" caused him to kill the Keystone XL pipeline.) That Mr. Obama has invested political capital in his own country and abroad talking about and acting upon climate change is no guarantee his successor will do likewise.

Still, as the President correctly noted at the press conference, many of Thursday's agreements will be carried on regardless of who wins the presidency. In that sense, the progress made in the run-up to the summit, and confirmed at the leaders' meeting, can be "booked" for the future of the relationship.

These two men quite obviously have formed a mutual-admiration society, as political liberals who see the role of government in a broadly similar fashion.

Mr. Obama is the more cerebral of the two, and by now much more experienced, but both are excellent communicators and political winners. Although Mr. Trudeau carried a famous name when he launched a political career, as with Mr. Obama at the earliest stage of his political career, few saw him as a potential national leader.

So they both came to high office with relatively little background and exceeded expectations in their own countries. It is easy, therefore, for them to see a bit of the other in themselves. And although bilateral relations go far beyond the two highest political offices, it can help resolve problems and advance common interests to have an excellent personal relationship at the top.

Mr. Trudeau was appropriately careful not to be drawn into comments about the U.S. presidential primaries, because whichever nominees they produce, one of them will become president. Mr. Trudeau will have no choice but to work with that person. Already his chummy relationship with Mr. Obama might rub some Republicans the wrong way, but you deal with the president in power and make the best of it.

From evident personal simpatico between the two leaders, to practical agreements and more than a touch of glitz and glamour, it was a fine day for Canada-U.S. relations.