What's in a tweak? That question has to linger after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went to the White House and got just about everything he could reasonably hope for out of a visit with U.S. President Donald Trump.
We're not the trade target. Reciprocal trade is important to both countries, Mr. Trump said, and he wants a "stronger trading relationship" with Canada. Bad things have happened with Mexico, but when it comes to Canada, he's just looking to "tweak" the North American free-trade agreement.
Phew. No talk of big tariffs. No warning about how the trading relationship has to be rewritten to make it fair. Mr. Trudeau's team even got the White House to issue a joint statement that included some of the visiting Canadians' favourite talking points, like noting that Canada is the biggest export customer for 35 U.S. states. At the joint press conference with Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Trump even said the U.S. and Canada would be using technology to speed up trade across the border.
To Mr. Trump, it seems, Canada is one of the good guys of trade, along with Britain, not like his targets, Mexico and China, who are very, very bad. Mr. Trudeau looked a little relieved. Not overjoyed, but relieved.
But that word – "tweak." It's vague. Especially when you imagine its application to a trade relationship that includes 75 per cent of Canada's exports. Mr. Trump does not use words with scalpel-like precision, it's true, but he left ample room for interpretation. It was direction, not detail.
But Mr. Trump did follow it up with comments that Mexico trade is a problem and then spoke at length about companies hearing his trade views and moving plants to the U.S. – pointing to auto makers in particular.
The problem remains that Canada is in a trilateral trade agreement with both the U.S. and Mexico, and it's difficult to both clobber Mexican goods with tariffs and spare Canada with mere tweaks. Taking a bludgeon to Mexico implies a wide reopening of NAFTA, and that suggests that Canada still faces a new free-trade negotiation and an effort to ensure tweaks don't become chips or blows. The three U.S.-based auto makers that Mr. Trump named remain sizable employers in Canada, dependent on cross-border trade rules, so if what really interests Mr. Trump is that they move plants to the U.S., that's still a problem. The concern about collateral damage is not gone.
Yet Mr. Trudeau did leave with his glass at least half full. Mr. Trump talked about the two countries continuing to work toward "reciprocal" trade. That word doesn't sound like it trips from Mr. Trump's tongue, but the President now uses it to describe the goal for trade with friends – it implies that the U.S. encourages trade as long as the U.S. does not develop a trade deficit. The details of what that means for Canada, for oil, cars and other exports, remain to be explained.
What Mr. Trudeau walked away with was an image of the two governments able to work together. The leaders' relationship wasn't visibly warm. Both saw benefits – after picking a fight with Australia's PM, Mr. Trump didn't need one with Canada's. But there was no chemistry. Mr. Trudeau brought a shrewd gift, a picture of his father, Pierre Trudeau, with Mr. Trump in 1981, which Mr. Trump seemed to appreciate, but the body language didn't suggest warmth.
At one point in the joint press conference, when queried about security threats, Mr. Trump detoured to talking about the great visit he'd just shared with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, when the two played golf in Florida. Awkward. Mr. Trudeau was standing right there.
Mr. Trudeau wasn't as smiley as usual, either. He avoided a question about Mr. Trump's immigration ban by saying Canadians don't expect him to come to Washington to lecture Americans. But he still did a little of that, implicitly, when he was asked about accepting Syrian refugees and said Canada knows there's no contradiction between being welcoming and ensuring security. Mr. Trump doesn't agree, but he ignored the Canadian's answer, and expressed his own views.
The point is that Mr. Trump isn't making an issue of it. Or an issue with Canada. When asked whether he thought the Canadian border is secure, he said you can never be totally certain, but he's encouraged by the work being done. Good enough, surely, for the Canadian Prime Minister on a first visit. At least until the two sides start to hammer out the meaning of tweak.