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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses the an audience at the Mexican senate in Mexico City on Friday. Mr. Trudeau gently nudged Mexico to raise labour standards as he spoke of the importance of ensuring that the benefits of trade are shared by all.CARLOS JASSO/Reuters

It's a tough irony for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that his Mexico moment came now. Two years ago, he was campaigning on repairing strained relationships with Mexico and the United States, promising a payoff in trade. When Mexican senators were standing applauding him on Friday, it was with a potential North American trade crisis looming in the background.

Mr. Trudeau was lavishly feted in his two days in Mexico, by President Enrique Pena Nieto, who rolled out red carpets and held a state dinner, then by the Senate with a military choir singing O Canada. In the Senate chamber, he hit well-received notes in a call for a progressive internationalism – as opposed to isolationism, a hint at Donald Trump. Mr. Trudeau declared Mexico a natural friend and partner for Canada.

It has to be counted as a success for the relationship. In fact, Mr. Trudeau's whole week visiting Washington and Mexico City was a display of good relationships, in the narrow sense. He courted members of Congress. He got along with Mr. Trump, who said Mr. Trudeau had become a friend. Mr. Trudeau had worked at it: he has spoken more often to Mr. Trump in eight months than he did to President Barack Obama in 14, according to his aides.

But the relationships seem warm as trade talks are turning toxic.

While he chatted with Mr. Trump in the Oval Office, U.S. negotiators were putting so-called poison pills on the NAFTA table: a sunset clause so the trade agreement would have to be renewed every five years; and a demand that all duty-free vehicles contain 50-per-cent U.S. content.

The hard fact for Mr. Trudeau, who really has put a lot into relationships with foreign leaders, is that warmer relationships might not be enough. There are going to be tough strategic decisions for Mr. Trudeau on NAFTA. One, might be deciding whether to ditch the Mexicans, and strain the relationship again.

Right now, Mr. Trudeau is just what the Mexicans ordered. Mr. Pena Nieto, whose approval ratings are weak, was delighted to be seen with a Canadian PM who is a contrast to Mr. Trump's anti-Mexico rhetoric, and is viewed as a glamorous figure around the world. The first Mexican reporter to pose a question at their joint press conference directed her query to Mr. Pena Nieto, but asked for a picture with Mr. Trudeau.

In the Senate on Friday, he was the friendly, progressive Canadian. He reminded them that he had lifted the hated Canadian visa requirements for Mexicans and seen the flow of Mexican tourists to Canada increase. Senators stood to applaud when he talked about working for the rights of women and girls around the world. He addressed climate change. He gently nudged Mexico to raise labour standards as he spoke of the importance of ensuring that the benefits of trade are shared by all.

But NAFTA? He was brief, and vague, on the negotiations worrying both Canada and Mexico. He talked about being Mexico's partner in uncertain times. But the night before, he dodged when asked whether he had assured Mr. Pena Nieto that Canada wouldn't drop trilateral talks to do a bilateral deal with the United States.

Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Pena Nieto have choices to make about strategy.

The first, both indicated, is to stick with the talks even when the United States makes non-negotiable proposals. That suggests that if anyone is going to walk away, it's going to be Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trudeau might hope that his personal relationship can help him persuade the President not to trigger a withdrawal from NAFTA. But who knows? He might hope some of the members of Congress he met this week, in an encounter with the House ways and means committee, would use their power to block Mr. Trump from withdrawing. But no one knows if they will.

And then there's a decision about strategic patience: Would Mr. Trudeau wait for all those things to play out, risking a disruption in Canada's crucial trade with the United States, or would he decide, at some point, to bargain alone with Mr. Trump?

That 2015 campaign promise about repairing relationships was partly about replacing a chilly tone with a warmer one, and Mr. Trudeau marked that moment with Mexico this week. But it was supposed to bring a reward, too: The Liberal campaign platform promised it would help improve North American trade. Now, with Mr. Trump in the White House, Mr. Trudeau is marking a renewed relationship as the trade ties are in jeopardy.

In a speech to Mexico’s Senate, the PM called for 'progressive' values and the promotion of women’s rights in a possible new NAFTA treaty. Justin Trudeau wrapped up his first official trip to the country Friday.

The Canadian Press

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