Politics·Analysis

Justin Trudeau faces next Trump test at NATO and G7 meetings

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Canadian Forces jet touched down in Brussels last night he landed on a continent poised to host the NATO and G7 summits and bracing for the chaos that flew here on Air Force One.

European allies expected to look to Canada for advice on dealing with U.S. president

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau departed Wednesday for Europe, where he will attend NATO and G7 leaders' meetings. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Canadian Forces jet touched down in Brussels last night, he landed on a continent poised to host the NATO and G7 summits and bracing for the chaos that flew here on Air Force One.

The multi-summit agenda will focus on defence, terrorism, trade and climate change. But much of the conversation will centre around people seeking Canada's advice on how to deal with the world's biggest wild card — Donald Trump.

"There's a lot of 'So what can you tell us about them? What are they like?'" is how one senior Canadian official described the dynamic at international gatherings of top ministers.

Dealing with the U.S. administration involves "a lot of ... separating fact from fiction," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "There's just so much noise, so many rumours."

Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump struck a cordial and positive tone during Trudeau's visit to the White House in February. The relationship will be further tested during this week's NATO and G7 meetings, where trade, terrorism and contributions to the military alliance will be on the agenda. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Since Trump's inauguration, Canada has sent a steady stream of ministers, advisers and emissaries to Washington to forge ties with his administration. Top officials in the Prime Minister's Office are in near daily contact with key Trump officials through texts, emails and phone calls.

The charm offensive has earned Canada a particular insight into how the Trump administration operates that many NATO and G7 members simply don't have. But since predicting what Trump might do is a near impossibility, media reports in the run-up to the meetings show an alliance bracing for a president believed to have a quick temper and a short attention span.

NATO members have reportedly been told to keep their presentation to less than four minutes so Trump doesn't get bored.

Canada seen as bridge to U.S.

Acting as a bridge between the U.S. and Europe is something Canada has historically done. But Laura Dawson, director of the Canada Institute at the Washington-based Wilson Center, says it is something that is acutely needed post-Brexit and post-Trump.

"The world has changed a lot just in a year," Dawson says. "The one thing that Donald Trump's election has done, not just in the United States but globally, [it] has said all of your assumptions are up for reconsideration."

That's the dynamic facing Trudeau at NATO headquarters in Brussels today and then in Sicily for the G7 on Friday and Saturday. And it may be something the prime minister can exploit.

"Somebody like Justin Trudeau, who has been around the block a couple of times, who is well liked internationally, can really help to support Trump and make sure that North American priorities are well expressed, and to give the guy some support so that he doesn't paint himself into a corner," Dawson says.

Maintaining that relationship with Trump — despite big disagreements on key NATO and G7 issues — will be important for Trudeau at these summits.

Trump has accused NATO members of not pulling their weight on defence spending. Canada spends less than the two per cent of GDP that Trump and NATO leadership are demanding.

Republican presidential frontrunner says U.S. can't foot the bill for other NATO allies, calls on them to boost to defence spending. 0:48

Trump has tried to ban visitors from some Muslim countries from entering the U.S. and has criticized the global push to freer trade. Trudeau has personally welcomed Syrian refugees into Canada and has been a champion of free trade at past international gatherings.

Challenges for Trudeau

Trudeau has managed those differences on a bilateral basis with Trump, motivated by the need to preserve the multibillion-dollar trading relationship. But the prime minister has yet to face them at a global summit with an array of voices at the table — including other trade and defence partners that Canada also wants to keep happy.

"I think that their most important priority for this meeting will be the bilateral relationship with the United States," said Meredith Lilly, a professor of international affairs at Carleton University. "I would expect that [Trudeau's] number one priority is ensuring that we continue to have a good and strong relationship and we are set on the right foot for NAFTA."

Trudeau walks toward his plane ahead of his departure for Brussels. The NATO and G7 leaders' meetings will test his ability to handle complex issues on the international stage, according to one observer of Canada-U.S. relations. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Lilly, who advised former prime minister Stephen Harper, believes the G7 leaders in particular will find ways to help Trump have a successful first summit and demonstrate its relevance to the new president. She said Trudeau should seek to be part of that effort.

"President Trump will take note of the dynamic at the G7 table, and I think it's a really important time for Canada to be setting a very positive tone as we head into NAFTA negotiations," said Lilly.

Trudeau attended his first G7 in Japan last year as the newest leader of one of the world's top economies. But after a year of political churn, Trudeau will attend his second G7 as the third most senior leader.

Dawson says given the disruption caused by Trump and the sharp turnover in G7 leadership, this meeting could reveal a lot about Trudeau's mettle on the world stage.

"Can he be an effective leader in an international meeting like this?" Dawson said. "I mean, he's now definitely come out of the honeymoon phase and the question is: Does Justin Trudeau really have what it takes to be an international leader on complex issues during complex times?"

About the Author

David Cochrane is a senior reporter in CBC's Parliamentary bureau. He previously wrote for CBC Newfoundland and Labrador.

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