World·Analysis

Justin Trudeau greeted with well wishes but also high expectations on world stage: Nahlah Ayed

Canada's incoming prime minister will have scarce time to get up to speed before he's thrust onto the world stage next month at a series of meetings, where he will cut a somewhat awkward figure.

Global leaders and media light up for Canada's next prime minister, but it won't be easy for him

Incoming PM Justin Trudeau's victory last night received unusual prominence in the world media, but his honeymoon period won't last long, Nahlah Ayed writes. (Jim Young/Reuters)

Among the world's most powerful leaders, at some of the world's most powerful gatherings, Justin Trudeau will cut a somewhat awkward figure.

Gone will be Canada's "elder statesman" status — made possible by Stephen Harper's longevity as prime minister — to be replaced by one of the youngest members to join the world's most exclusive political and economic clubs in some time.

And it will happen within weeks, starting at a G20 meeting in Turkey next month where Trudeau will sit shoulder to shoulder with both the U.S. and Russian presidents, among many other leaders.

"Obviously, everybody who steps on the stage as prime minister in early days is … new when they begin. Mr. Harper was, we all were," says Joe Clark, who at 39 became Canada's youngest prime minister ever, in 1979. Trudeau, at 43, will become the second-youngest.

But Clark, also a one-time foreign minister, says Trudeau will project a "contemporary" image of Canada. He has already shown "a capacity to deal very effectively with people who are not like him, not his age, not his background, and that's an essential quality internationally."

"I think we will be seen as a more reasonable partner in the world," Clark concludes.

Unusual prominence

Just hours after Trudeau clinched his majority, Canada's accustomed place in the world seemed to already be shifting, starting with its unusual placement in the world's headlines.

In Britain, television networks provided hourly updates, flashing photos of a victorious Trudeau in their show openings, while live blogs and news websites played the story (and the photos) prominently.

His sweep was variously described as a "sea change," a "stunning comeback" or a "stunning rebuke."

In a German headline, Trudeau was a "rock star," and his meteoric rise, according to a French one, a "lightning ascent."

"Canada is already in love with its new prime minister" declared i100, the Independent's hip online paper, posting various pictures of a long-haired, shirtless Trudeau.

Many of the outlets played up both Trudeau's age and his pedigree, mentioning his father, Pierre, and an upbringing that would have honed the younger Trudeau's political persona. Many others also highlighted Trudeau's feminism and his views on marijuana.

Others — media and world players alike — began the process of combing through his promises to spell out what a Canada under Trudeau will look and sound like on the international stage.

Within weeks of being sworn in as PM, Trudeau will find himself at a G20 meeting with Vladimir Putin, left, and Barack Obama. (Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA-Novosti/Kremlin/AP)

Allies are cognizant, for example, that Trudeau has promised to withdraw from the bombing campaign against ISIS. Today the White House weighed in on that prospect.

"We certainly value the contribution that we received from the Canadians thus far," spokesman Josh Earnest said, "and we are, certainly are hoping that they continue to play this important role."

Trudeau himself said today that with their vote, Canadians were sending a message to the world.

"Many of you have worried that Canada has lost its compassion over the past 10 years. I have a simple message for you: On behalf of 35 million Canadians, we're back."

High expectations

In the meantime, international good wishes began to trickle in for the prime minister-designate.

Indian PM Narendra Modi tweeted congratulations and a photo of the two of them when they met in Ottawa.

China also weighed in early. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying offered congratulations, noting that the two countries "have had diplomatic relations for 45 years" — a hint at the elder Trudeau's decision to recognize the People's Republic of China back when many in the West would not.

But with the good wishes also came some high expectations.

Former US vice-president and environmental activist Al Gore also tweeted early congratulations, but added "I'm hopeful the election will put Canada back in a leadership position" on climate change.

A spokeman for the UN secretary general echoed that sentiment today.

As a member of the G7, Canada should play a role of "leadership on climate change issues," said Farhan Haq. "The secretary general hopes and expects that Canada will play that role."

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon signalled he has high hopes for Canada's new leadership. (Eskinder Debebe/The United Nations via AP)

Canada's reputation suffered internationally after Harper decided to pull out of the Kyoto climate change accord.

"Canada wasn't taking a great part in it… but it was almost actively campaigning against," said Anthony Cary, Britain's former high commissioner to Ottawa, who made no friends there for pushing the Harper government on the environment. He left in 2011.

"Eventually Canada did take on much lower targets than it had committed to and then had no national plan to try and meet them.

"There's all sorts of areas of international discussion where Canada hasn't played a strong role in recent years," he added.

Difficult promises

Canada has developed a more bombastic and polarizing voice on the world stage on everything from the UN to the Ukraine and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. Under Harper, Canada all but abandoned its role as a peacekeeper and a moderate soft power.

That posture on the world stage will take some undoing. And Trudeau must find a way if he is to make good on some of his promises. 

He has pledged, for example, to thaw relations with Iran — where the Canadian Embassy has been firmly shuttered — and to take in 25,000 Syrian refugees in short order.

Trudeau will have to mull all that, and much more, as he also attends APEC and Commonwealth summits, before landing at the highly anticipated United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris — all by the time December rolls around.

About the Author

Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.

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