Canadian prime ministers do not get to pick the U.S. presidents they must work with. If they did, Justin Trudeau would be meeting on Monday with Hillary Clinton. Instead, he will sit down in the Oval Office with the most vindictive, needy and thin-skinned U.S. leader since Richard Nixon.
It just so happens that Mr. Nixon became president shortly after Mr. Trudeau's father became prime minister. The Republican President came to office on a protectionist platform that sent Canadian officials into conniptions. A dysfunctional relationship between the two leaders was one reason Canada was unable to escape the so-called "Nixon Shock" – a 10-per-cent surcharge on all U.S. imports.
To avoid a repeat of history, Mr. Trudeau will need to take a kinder, gentler approach than his father to advance Canada's interests in the face of a moody President. Pierre Trudeau did not suffer fools. For his country's sake, his son may have to, even if it angers his supporters back home.
Truth be told, the oil and vinegar comparisons of Mr. Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump are overdone. Neither are ideological leaders. They both grew up knowing privilege. They are both image obsessed, celebrity politicians who manipulate social media like pros. It's not hard to picture Mr. Trump taking to his young, Vogue-certified interlocutor, especially if the fashion-forward Ivanka sits in on their chat.
To break the ice, Mr. Trudeau can always compliment Mr. Trump on the redecorating job he did in the Oval Office. In addition to changing the curtains – the new President switched out his predecessor's crimson-coloured drapes for (what else?) gold ones – Mr. Trump reinstalled a bust of Winston Churchill that Barack Obama had replaced with one of Martin Luther King Jr.
Mr. Trudeau might want to point out that it was Mr. Churchill, Mr. Trump's hero, who, in 1939, described the Canada-U.S. relationship as a model for the planet. "That long frontier from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans, guarded only by neighbourly respect and honourable obligations, is an example to every country and a pattern for the future of the world."
Brian Mulroney used to remind Ronald Reagan of Mr. Churchill's quote whenever cross-border problems arose. Mr. Reagan welled up at its mention and the two men usually settled whatever irritant was getting in the way. Mr. Trump, who fancies himself the inheritor of Mr. Reagan's legacy, is a similarly emotional leader who yearns to be a historical figure.
He also came to office clueless about Canada and needed to be educated about the depth and interdependence of the relationship. Mr. Mulroney has done his part to ensure Mr. Trump and those around him are brought up to scratch, serving as an informal conduit between the Trudeau government and members of the new administration. It was Mr. Mulroney who arranged for the head of the President's Strategic and Policy Forum, Steve Schwarzman, to address the Liberal cabinet last month. The former prime minister sits on the board of Mr. Schwarzman's private equity firm.
The worst thing Mr. Trudeau could do is to try talking tough on trade, as Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland did when she met Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week. Ms. Freeland evoked a tit-for-tat trade war by insisting Canada would "respond appropriately" to any new tariffs on our exports to the United States. But Mr. Trump does not respond well to threats.
What he responds well to is validation of his hugeness. Mr. Trudeau must humour him if he has to. By all means, he must not publicly criticize him or contradict him in the joint news conference the two leaders will likely hold after their meeting – even if reporters try to provoke him and his anti-Trump base back home wants him to stand up to the brutish Yankee leader. As one veteran of Canada-U.S. diplomacy explained: "The Liberals need to forget about their base because it's going to disappear if they lose five million Canadian jobs."
This is not the assignment Mr. Trudeau signed up for when he was elected. But it's the one that history has handed him. If he manages it well, it will yield huge economic and political dividends. Canadians will be eternally grateful if this country ends up on the right side of the protectionist wall Mr. Trump seems intent on erecting.
For all of Mr. Trudeau's affinities with Mr. Obama, the latter was just not that into Canada and never did his friends any favours. Mr. Trump, properly treated, could do us many.