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Opinion Setting Uncle Sam straight: Past PMs scored on the U.S. Trudeau can, too

In the anti-intellectual era we live in, erudition, honourable as it is, gets ignorantly equated with elitism. Cowards hide behind anonymous social-media posts to inflict their bile. A political leader’s every thought is instantly ridiculed by fist-shakers from the far-right or left. Venom fills the public square in unprecedented quantity.

In such an environment it is occasionally worthwhile to bring a little perspective to bear. There are issues, large matters of state, wherein our leaders hardly merit the malice. There are times of good judgment, smart stewardship. The demagogic smear artists are too locked in to their cauldrons of contempt to notice.

One such issue, a file I’ve been watching for a long time, is the way our prime ministers, both Liberal and Conservative, have handled high-stakes relations with the Americans and their Goliaths at the White House.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is off to Washington on Thursday to see one of them, Donald Trump. His third official visit in the U.S. capital with Mr. Trump comes 50 years after Pierre Trudeau went to see the newly inaugurated Richard Nixon. The time period bookended by the Trudeaus reveals a flattering record for Canadian leaders. They protected Canadian interests and, on the big questions of the times, they often hit the high mark.

We could start with wars. On Vietnam, the prodding from Ottawa, beginning with Lester Pearson and continuing with Pierre Trudeau, was against that conflict and its escalation.

Mr. Trudeau was in tune with the counterculture. He was vanguard, Richard Nixon old guard.

On another war, the Cold War, it was Mr. Trudeau who, through his relationship with Soviet ambassador to Canada, Alexander Yakovlev, came to know that reformer Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was the real deal. Inviting their scorn, he kept pressing the United States to negotiate and was right to do so and Ronald Reagan did so.

On another war, Iraq, Jean Chrétien kept Canada out. His instincts told him it was wrong. George W. Bush no doubt wishes his instincts had been like the Canadian’s.

On war, Canada’s leaders got it right. On trade, the same story. Pushed by strong anti-American fervour at home, Pierre Trudeau hewed too long to nationalist policy-making and made unsuccessful attempts at trade diversification. But Brian Mulroney dramatically changed course. Free trade was primarily a Canadian initiative and it became a winning one for both countries. Mr. Mulroney was ahead of his American counterparts on environmental issues such as acid rain as well.

Mr. Chrétien worked with Bill Clinton on ratification of the North American free-trade agreement (NAFTA). He had a splendid rapport with this president and it paid off in the unity crisis when Mr. Clinton gave a brilliant endorsement of federalism at Mont-Tremblant, Que.

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Chrétien successor Paul Martin rightly stood up to Mr. Bush and the detestable Dick Cheney in withdrawing support for ballistic defence. Participation in the Afghanistan war – Ottawa had to do something in the wake of 9/11 – was the correct call as well, even though, as shown by the results, wars in that country are futile.

Stephen Harper and Barack Obama were ideological opposites who predictably clashed over many issues, principally the Keystone XL pipeline. Each was catering to his political base. But given the importance of the issue to the Western economy, Mr. Harper was right to hold firmly to his position.

No president has been more difficult for a prime minister to deal with than the mercurial Mr. Trump. That includes Mr. Nixon. Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Nixon also hit Canada with tariffs. But Pierre Trudeau was able to work out a modus vivendi with him.

Justin Trudeau appears to be reaching a similar sort of rapprochement with Mr. Trump, the threat-a-day President who imposed steel and aluminum tariffs without due cause, raised the prospect of “ruining” the Canadian economy with auto tariffs and blew up a Group of Seven summit in Quebec, hurling insults at the Prime Minister.

Surviving the impulsive President has been no easy task, but the meeting on Thursday will be testament to that survival. As the two leaders try to build momentum for the ratification of the new North American trade deal, there will be manufactured smiles aplenty.

With their initial far-reaching demands, the United States was out to bring Canada to heel in the NAFTA renegotiations. It didn’t turn out that way. In dealing with the megapower ten times its size, the Canadian side held firm. Just as it has through the past 50 years.

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