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Canada’s Trudeau Speaks Softly and Carries a Nice Shtick

Canada’s Trudeau Speaks Softly and Carries a Nice Shtick

The much-anticipated meeting between President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau yielded a polite insistence on mutual respect, but with potential bilateral rifts simmering just beneath the surface.

The day began with a very firm handshake, but one that (unlike Trump’s clutching of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe) did eventually end.

Trudeau seemed to deliver a message to the Trump administration: We won’t disrespect your policies on immigration, with which we disagree, if you don’t disrespect us on trade. In that he echoed Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, who in her visit to Washington last week stressed the mutual dependence inherent in the trade relationship.

“At the end of the day,” Trudeau said at a joint press conference, “Canada and the U.S. will always remain each other’s most essential partners.”

Like Freeland, he noted that 35 U.S. states list Canada as major export market. So, too, did he cite the billions in two-way trade between the United States and Canada every day, and the millions of “good, middle-class jobs” that depend on it. He and Trump share a common goal, Trudeau said, which was to ensure prosperity for working families, later adding, “We have to allow free flow of goods and services and be aware of integration.”

Canada sends 75 percent of its exports to the United States, making the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) a do-or-die agenda item for Trudeau. Trump, despite repeatedly threatening to scrap the free trade agreement, assured press on Monday he was focused on forging a stronger trade relationship with Canada. Pressed on what kind of changes he envisions for the U.S.-Canada bit of NAFTA, Trump said “tweaks.”

But what really matters on trade happens behind closed doors, John Weekes, who served as Canada’s chief negotiator on NAFTA, told Foreign Policy. Weekes said the tone of Trudeau and Trump’s private meeting itself could chart the future trade relations as much as anything.

“If this meeting goes well today, ministers will understand their bosses got along well and want to find a way to make things work,” Weekes said.

Less congenial was the subject of immigration and refugees. Trudeau sidestepped outright criticism when asked about it at the press conference. “Relationships between neighbors are pretty complex and we won’t always agree on everything,” he said. “The last thing Canadians would expect is for me to come down and lecture another country on how they govern themselves,” he added. (Actually, recent polls show Canadians may have wanted him to do just that.)

Trump, for his part, defended his immigration policies, both the now-blocked travel ban and deportations of immigrants all over the country.

“I’m just doing what I said I would do when we won by a very, very large Electoral College vote,” he said, still apparently smarting from his popular vote loss.

Trump only took two questions from the U.S. press, and no reporters asked him about revelations that National Security Advisor Mike Flynn discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador before Trump took office, or about North Korea’s launch of a ballistic missile over the weekend.

FP staff writer David Francis contributed to this piece.

Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images