Opinion

Advice for Trudeau in dealing with Trump: Play nice

If Trudeau stands up to Donald Trump as an advocate for progressive values — as many Canadians want him to do, according to a recent poll — he will accomplish little in his first meeting with the new U.S. president.

Find points of agreement: for instance, jobs for the middle class

Trump's support for and probable approval of the Keystone XL pipeline is a gift, and it could serve as a real ice breaker. (Canadian Press/Associated Press)

If Prime Minister Justin Trudeau heeds to the impulses of a majority of Canadians who, in a recent poll, indicated they want him to stand up to Donald Trump as an advocate for progressive values, he will accomplish little in his first meeting with the new U.S. president.

We've faced an administration whose views did not align with our prime minister's before: Ronald Reagan was as different from prime minister Pierre Trudeau as any two international leaders, with major bilateral irritants such as acid rain, the hated National Energy Program, the Foreign Investment Review Act and perennial softwood lumber disputes complicating the relationship.

Ahead of an equally fraught meeting between Reagan and Trudeau-the-elder in December 1983, Allan Gotlieb, then-Canadian ambassador to the United States, advised our prime minister not to lecture Reagan, but rather, to engage him in a dialogue and even flatter him as a "man of peace." Justin Trudeau would be well advised to use the same strategy — to completely avoid underlining ideological differences — and find points of agreement: for instance, jobs for the middle class.

Ronald Reagan was as different from prime minister Pierre Trudeau as any two international leaders. (Scott Stewart/Associated Press)

It's well to remember, too, that as Gotlieb found out, succeeding in advancing Canadian interests in Washington is not solely dependent on close bonds between the president and prime minister. It means working the other power centres: the Hill, the media and lobbyists.

Gotlieb understood that Congress and heads of congressional committees make the law of the land.  When the Free Trade Agreement under prime minister Brian Mulroney looked like it was in trouble in the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, a meeting between the chairman and Gotlieb was arranged. The problem was solved shortly thereafter.

Diplomacy through entertaining

Gotlieb's public diplomacy was enhanced by entertaining. Top A-listers became regulars at embassy parties, which attracted guests by the attendance of Canadian Hollywood stars such as Donald Sutherland and Margot Kidder, and Canadian media giants including ABC's Peter Jennings and Robin MacNeil.

Over time, social contacts with Reagan's cabinet, aides and players on the Hill paid off for Canada. They set the stage for the successful conclusion of the Free Trade Agreement. David MacNaughton, Canada's talented new ambassador to the United States, could rebuild public diplomacy not only in Washington, but with governors in states that depend so much on bilateral trade.

Justin Trudeau faces many of the same challenges in a Trump Washington that Canada under his father faced. A TV star instead of a film star in the White House will take equally sensitive strategies to advance Canada's agenda. A working relationship between Trudeau and Trump is the best that can be hoped for. It's the best his dad could get. There are positive signs.

Tillerson has the potential to be a bridge-builder between Canada and the U.S. (Jon Gambrell/The Associated Press)

First, Trump's nominee for secretary of state, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, knows Canada well, and Exxon has large holdings in Canadian oil retail, exploration and development. Tillerson has the potential to be a bridge-builder between Canada and the U.S. in the critical energy sector and beyond.

Second, Trump's support for and probable approval of the Keystone XL pipeline is a gift, and it could serve as a real ice breaker for Trudeau in his early exchanges with Trump.

Finally, it will not have escaped the attention of the Trumps that Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, are celebrities in the U.S., and that they seem to attract positive attention wherever they go. The Trumps will surely understand the publicity downside of not getting along with them.

As for policy, Gotlieb said back in 2004 that Canada must do away with the impulse to "moralize and proclaim superior values," instead of pursuing a reality based foreign policy agenda. Good advice for Trudeau with Trump. He should forget the polls, and take it.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Patrick Gossage

Patrick Gossage served as press secretary to Pierre Trudeau and was minister of public affairs in the Washington embassy from 1983-1985.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.