Hébert: Trudeau must find order in the chaos of Trump

There is at least one prediction that is bulletproof about Monday’s first face-to-face meeting between Donald Trump and Justin Trudeau.

It will be the most-watched initial meeting between an incoming American president and a Canadian prime minister in recent history.

That’s not just because the new U.S. administration inspires widespread trepidation in Canada. The Trudeau/Trump get-together will also attract more than the usual share of attention in many foreign capitals.

Expect Trudeau’s speech to the European parliament a few days later to command a large audience. The official reason for rolling out the red carpet for the prime minister is CETA, the just-ratified free trade deal between Canada and the European Union.

But Trudeau’s EU hosts will also be parsing his speech for post-meeting insights into Trump’s psyche. Some will be hoping for useful intelligence to be dispensed, if only in private. Notwithstanding some hyped-up headlines, Canada’s international partners are not looking for the leader of a middle power such as Trudeau to lead an international counteroffensive against Trump. They would be just as happy to see their Canadian counterpart emerge as a moderating influence on the president.

At this stage, finding some semblance of order in the ongoing chaos that has characterized the first month of the Trump era is job one in the world’s diplomatic circles.

Trudeau and his government have gone out of their way to not poison the well of that first meeting. The task has turned out to be harder than most of the prime minister’s strategists initially expected. If not being the target of an irate presidential tweet is the litmus test of the success of those efforts, then they have apparently succeeded.

But it will be more difficult to reconcile the irreconcilable if Trudeau and Trump hold a joint news conference on Monday. Questions as to the glaring contrasts between their approaches to immigration and refugee policies will inevitably be asked.

British Prime Minister Theresa May had just left the White House when the controversial executive order banning citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. was issued last month. She thought she had scored a diplomatic coup by meeting Trump early on. Instead, she is still dealing with the domestic fallout from the travel ban.

At the best of times, it takes more than a cordial meeting or, indeed, many of them with an American president to iron out major trade irritants. If good vibes were enough to resolve a dispute, the Obama/Trudeau bromance would have put the softwood lumber issue to rest.

With Trump’s trade team not yet entirely in place, prospects of anything resembling relative certainty on the trade front are almost certainly overblown.

In any event, it would be wise to place any presidential statement about the Canada/U.S. trade relationship learned over the past few weeks. That’s a polite way to say it is best not to take any Trumpism at face value.

Take the case of China. After hinting loudly that his administration might seek direct ties with Taïwan and causing, in the process, a major diplomatic contretemps with Beijing, Trump has now reversed himself. This week, he assured Chinese President Xi Jinping that he supports the “One China” policy that does not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation.

There have been other U-turns. Optimists spot a welcome pattern. Pessimists note it may be risky to assume that what Trump says on Monday will still apply a week, a month or a year later. Realists hope for the best and continue to prepare for the worst.

When French President François Hollande delivered a similar address in 2014, the Liberals and the New Democrats mostly sat on their hands as he commended Canada for signing up with the international military coalition struck against Daesh.

For Trudeau, Trump’s first official visit to Canada could turn out to be at least as challenging as Monday’s meeting.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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