Analysis

Trudeau warmly embraced by Obama, but don't expect concessions from U.S.

Justin Trudeau was warmly welcomed by Barack Obama at APEC. But as the U.S president's answers to key economic questions show, just because Canada has a new, cheerier prime minister doesn't mean America will suddenly make concessions.

U.S. president calls PM 'Justin' and invites him to White House, but doesn't budge on oilsands

Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Obama talk about the fight against ISIS in their first face-to-face meeting 3:39

Justin Trudeau's father famously referred to Canada's relationship with the United States as akin to sleeping with an elephant. "One is affected by every twitch and grunt," he said in a speech in Washington.

Richard Nixon was the president then, and he and the senior Trudeau would grow not to like each other. The same could be said of Barack Obama and Stephen Harper. Cozy they weren't. Friendly enough, yes. But in the way neighbours are sociable when they agree to build a three-metre fence on the property line and to do their talking through it.

Now Harper's moved out. And Obama certainly did his part Thursday to make the new tenant to his north feel welcome when he and Justin Trudeau held their first one-on-one meeting on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Manila.

"I'm confident that he's going to be able to provide a great boost of energy and reform to the Canadian political landscape," the president said with a large smile.

And Obama told reporters he's invited "Justin" and his wife to the White House, making it sound like a personal visit by mentioning his own wife.

"I'm sure Michelle's going to want to visit with Canada's new first lady, so we are going to be looking for a date for that to happen. But I'm confident that will happen early in the year."

Don't be fooled, though

But before Canadians get too excited about the apparent closeness after years of chilly distance, Obama showed the same warmth at this summit, and extended the same invitation, to Australia's new prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull. He's expected to visit within the next couple weeks.

Obama was full of praise for both his new friends. He called Australia's role in fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq "enormously helpful" — just as he praised Trudeau's determination to make climate change a priority as "extraordinarily helpful" to his own quest to forge an emissions-reduction consensus at the approaching Paris climate conference.

Justin Trudeau, left, was warmly welcomed by Barack Obama in Manila at their first one-on-one meeting. But as the U.S president's answers to oilsands-related questions show, just because Canada has a new prime minister doesn't mean America will suddenly become a stronger partner. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"The fact is we now have a very strong partner in Canada," Obama said.

What Canada isn't getting is a strong partner in Obama. No matter how friendly the two appeared at their first meeting, the fence is still up.

An example: Despite Trudeau's determination to reduce Canada's greenhouse gas emissions, Obama made no concessions of his own when asked if he still thinks Alberta's bitumen is dirty oil. He tossed aside altogether a question about whether he would reconsider his decision to block TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline now that Trudeau was in office.

Still, Trudeau told reporters on the flight to Manila that he felt there are a number of big things on his agenda for his first year, like climate change, that dovetail with what Obama hopes to leave as a legacy in his last year in office.  

Economic focus lost

For Trudeau, this trip to take part in both the G20 summit in Turkey and APEC summit in Manila didn't go exactly as planned.

Both summits are supposed to focus on the economy, things like Trudeau's plans to invest heavily in infrastructure, his commitment to reduce taxes on the middle class and to build an inclusive economy — the new buzzword at both summits this year.

Instead, the slaughter in Paris by ISIS extremists took over the agenda. The attention turned to Trudeau's campaign promise to withdraw Canada's six CF-18 fighter jets from the Mideast, even as the Defence Department reported five successful airstrikes on ISIS positions in Iraq in the past week. Trudeau insisted all week that Canadians want an end to the bombing, and his nascent government is determined to keep faith with them.

While France, the U.S. and unlikely ally Russia intensified their aerial assault on ISIS in the aftermath of separate deadly attacks — the carnage in Paris and the downing of a Russian airliner — Canada's role will be to increase the number of trainers working with Kurdish forces. By how much, and when, remains unanswered.

The reality is that none of the other world leaders — including Obama — pressured Trudeau to reconsider his decision at meetings in Turkey and the Philippines this week.  

Taken for granted?    

Most of the leaders Trudeau met with on the sidelines of the G20 and APEC summits seemed more than happy to meet him. Most made a point of praising him openly.

Italy's Matteo Renzi congratulated Trudeau on his ''incredible electoral campaign" in front of the cameras in Turkey.

South Korea's Park Geun-hye was equally effusive during the opening photo op of their bilateral meeting in Manila, expressing the hope that Canada succeed "in achieving real change under your leadership."

But don't expect much too much change in Washington's views toward Canada, even though Obama took pains to call the prime minister by his first name and to extend the invitation for a longer meeting at the White House.

Obama seemed to take for granted Thursday that Trudeau would soon be ratifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a massive trade deal involving 12 countries in the Pacific Rim — as the prime minister who's said nothing of the sort sat smiling wanly next to him.

"After that process has taken place, Canada, the United States and the other countries that are here can establish the high standards agreement that protects labour, protects the environment, protects the kind of high value-added goods and services that we both excel in," Obama said.

In fact, Trudeau's Liberals have consistently said they don't feel bound by the agreement negotiated by the previous Conservatives government and have committed to public consultations and a vote in Parliament.

It wasn't exactly the elephant in the room. But Trudeau was no doubt affected by the twitch of his friendly neighbour to the south.

About the Author

Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.

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