As Justin Trudeau met with Donald Trump in Washington, Thursday, the Prime Minister confronted a frustrating truth: The success or failure of key elements of his foreign policy rest in the hands of an erratic, unpredictable American President.
Mr. Trudeau met with Mr. Trump and later with Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, to discuss the fate of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the new trade pact that Mr. Trump had insisted on as a replacement for the existing North American free-trade agreement (NAFTA).
Everything depends on whether the Democrats in the House will co-operate with the administration to ratify the agreement. (The Republican-controlled Senate is already onside.) How much capital does Mr. Trump have with the House Democrats? They’re debating among themselves whether to impeach him.
At his news conference on Thursday, Mr. Trudeau made it clear that, while his government would do what it could to allay any concerns, “Canada is not going to get involved in the ratification process,” which is another way of saying “we’re bystanders.”
If Congress somehow finds its way clear to ratifying the new agreement this summer, then Mr. Trudeau will happily summon Parliament to do the same, providing powerful ammunition for Liberal claims to be reliable stewards of trade and the economy.
Failure, though, will inject yet more uncertainty: Will Mr. Trump, in frustration, announce the termination of the existing NAFTA, severely threatening cross-border trade? Will he impose new tariffs? Will he do something nobody can predict, because, well, he’s Donald Trump?
Could there be any worse time for any of that to happen than just before or during the general election?
China is the other crucial issue. Since Canada detained Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou last December at the request of the U.S. government for extradition, China has imposed a series of retaliatory moves, from arbitrarily detaining Canadian citizens to banning agricultural products.
All sides know Canada is being used as a bargaining chip in the high-stakes trade confrontation between China and the United States, as Washington seeks to contain Beijing’s growing economic strength.
The Chinese won’t even return the calls of Mr. Trudeau or Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland. So Mr. Trudeau went to Washington to ask Mr. Trump to intercede, particularly in the cases of detained Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, when Mr. Trump meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Group of 20 summit meeting in Osaka next week.
“Anything I can do to help Canada, I will be doing,” Mr. Trump promised. This is a far more helpful attitude than his temper tantrum after the Group of Seven meeting in Charlevoix, Que., last year, when the President called the Prime Minister “dishonest and weak” over a tariff dispute.
But there is no way to disguise it: On the China file, Mr. Trudeau visited Mr. Trump to beg for help.
Even Mr. Trump’s efforts to restrict immigration to the United States could have an impact on Liberal fortunes. Canada accepted 28,100 refugees in 2018, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, more even than the United States, which typically takes in more than any other country. The reason is that the Trudeau government believes Canada should do its part in accommodating the dispossessed, while the Trump administration is determined to keep foreigners out.
But the refugee issue is contentious. The Trudeau government has done an excellent job of getting on top of the situation at the U.S.-Quebec border, where thousands of border-crossers have been claiming asylum. A situation that threatened to become a crisis in 2017 has diminished to an irritant in 2019, as the flow of crossers steadily ebbs.
Nonetheless, many Canadians worry about the number of new arrivals to Canada, especially those who are brought in on humanitarian rather than economic grounds. By cutting back so severely on the American intake, Mr. Trump has highlighted Canada’s generosity at a time when the Liberals probably would prefer to have the focus elsewhere.
In so many ways, the actions of this rogue President have shaped the fortunes of this Canadian government. Even now he holds many cards. It must be galling.
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