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andrew cohen

Andrew Cohen, a Canadian journalist, author and professor, is a Fulbright Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington.

Justin Trudeau came to Washington on a lightning mission Monday to protect and preserve his country's relationship with the United States, facing its greatest challenge in a generation from a President declaring "America First."

Having made the case for Canada to Donald Trump at the White House and to senior Republicans on Capitol Hill, the Prime Minister returned home confident the visit was a success.

It could have gone badly, like Mr. Trump's telephone calls with other world leaders. By all accounts, it did not.

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In the face of a protectionist, nativist, conservative President who talks of ending NAFTA, imposing a border tax and barring Muslim refugees, Mr. Trudeau could see an adversary. In the face of an isolationist and erratic President critical of NATO, suspicious of traditional allies like Germany and partial to Russia, disparaging of the United Nations and the anti-nuclear agreement on Iran, Mr. Trudeau could see a radical.

How, then, does Canada – a petitioner and a junior partner – handle a swaggering President who assails the principles (collective security, multilateralism) at the root of its foreign policy since 1945? How to protect our interests (free trade, continental defence) without sacrificing our values (pluralism, liberalism, tolerance)?

And how to win over a President likely to become the most unpopular in Canada since Richard Nixon, who poses – to believe his rhetoric – a near existential threat to most everything you believe about yourself at home and abroad?

Well, you do your homework. You shuffle your cabinet, replacing the dour Stéphane Dion with the affable Chrystia Freeland, who knows America and can play nice with Rex Tillerson, the new Secretary of State. You recruit retired Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie, formerly government whip, who knows Michael Flynn, James Mattis and other generals in the administration (Leslie was at the White House Monday). You consult Brian Mulroney and Conrad Black, who know Mr. Trump.

You request the first meeting in Washington, not in Ottawa, where demonstrators (and legislators) could insult Mr. Trump. You talk to the White House for weeks and appeal personally to Ivanka Trump. Hell, desperate to woo her and find common ground, you concoct a council on women in business and convene it in the cabinet room of the White House. It's no longer enough to have the world's longest unmilitarized border or biggest trading relationship; now, we both have successful women executives, too!

On the big day, you put on your game face and show up at the White House all sweetness and charm, offering thanks and praise, bearing a thoughtful gift (a photograph of Mr. Trump and Pierre Elliott Trudeau in a pewter frame with embossed maple leaves). You do not wince when Mr. Trump says he "knew" your father.

However tempted, you say nothing about global warming and leave your greatest champion, Catherine McKenna, at home. At the same time, you do not lecture your host on Muslim refugees, Mexican immigrants, the value of the UN – or, frankly, any of your values.

Canada, which can be smug, has done that sort of thing before. It never works well.

At the end of the day, you do what you have to do to keep our biggest customer happy. Mr. Trudeau did. It was a bravura performance.

Strongly and clearly, he reminded a President unfamiliar with Canada that we are a loyal ally, a free trader and a watchful neighbour. This came through in the joint written statement and the spoken statements, presumably prepared before the meeting.

No, this was not the bromance between Mr. Trudeau and Barack Obama. Mr. Trump did not hug Mr. Trudeau, as he did Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but they did grip each other's forearms firmly. Mr. Abe also spent three days here and in Florida – an "extended weekend," Mr. Trump noted. Mr. Trudeau got three hours.

Mr. Trump looked subdued, even bored, reading his statement, and did not always use his earpiece when Mr. Trudeau spoke French. But as one Canadian official there said, the Americans were hospitable, informed ("They knew their brief better than we thought") and grateful for the visit.

So, Justin Trudeau went to Washington and kissed the king's ring, because that is what Canada must do. If this "sunny ways" liberal felt aggrieved by Mr. Trump's harshness, he never let on. That's seamanship.

On the eve of Valentine's Day, Mr. Trudeau had a heart-to-heart with a new friend he feared was already estranged. He got Mr. Trump's attention, if not his affection. It was a good first date.

Prime Minister Trudeau and U.S. President Trump respond to a question on the future of trade between the two countries at a joint press conference in Washington, D.C.

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