When Justin Met Barack

A brief history of belligerence and bromance between Canadian prime ministers and U.S. presidents.

US President Barack Obama (R)and Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attend a press conference in the Rose Garden of the White House on March 10, 2016 in Washington, DC. / AFP / Nicholas Kamm        (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (R)and Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attend a press conference in the Rose Garden of the White House on March 10, 2016 in Washington, DC. / AFP / Nicholas Kamm (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Considering the leaders involved — a prime minister who prefers rolled-up sleeves and an open collar to a suit and tie, and a president known to bristle at Washington pageantry — it is perhaps a testament to the strength of North American relations that Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau were able to muster such smiles in the lead up to this week’s state dinner — a spectacle that has been described as just one tier below a royal wedding.

Although both men are something of liberal icons and relatively progressive heads of state, they are far from close — Trudeau has been in office a mere four months, after all. But their Washington summit has already been endlessly scrutinized by media in both countries, many hoping the leaders’ symbolic similarities will translate into a productive working relationship.

And when it comes to the pairings of Canadian prime ministers and U.S. presidents, rarely is this not the case.

While the United States and Canada may seem like almost impossibly perfect neighbors by the standards of much of the world — 200 years of cross-border peace is certainly something few European states can boast — the prime minister-president relationship has been surprisingly complicated over the last 70 years. Clashes of personality, political philosophy, and international priorities have at times pitted American and Canadian leaders against one other. Trudeau’s state visit to the White House (an invitation that ended a conspicuous 20-year absence of such summits) might be one of the more congenial such meetings in what has been a tumultuous history of ups and downs between Washington and Ottawa.

The stories of these meetings are now the stuff of Canadian folklore. The frosty interactions between U.S. President John F. Kennedy and John Diefenbaker, Canada’s conservative premier from 1957 to 1963, are taught to schoolchildren as the quintessential study of cross-border ambivalence.

“Dief the Chief,” as the former prime minister was known to his supporters, was a sullen, thick-jowled prairie lawyer whose long slog to the top was animated by a host of resentments for the establishment. “Everyone is against me except the people,” he cried on the campaign trail. As prime minister, Diefenbaker was an unapologetic Anglophile, having been raised on the glories of the British Empire — which Canada did not officially leave until 1931 — and disdained a global order led by naive Americans rather than worldly Brits. Meetings between the leaders, though infrequent, were predictably awkward. In his memoirs, Diefenbaker huffs that Kennedy “hated Britain” and “had no knowledge of Canada whatsoever,” the proof of which he saw everywhere, from the president’s ignorance of English victories in the War of 1812 — which Canadians like to imagine as their battle for independence from America — to Kennedy’s annoying pronunciation of his neighbor’s name (“Canader”). In response, when the Cuban missile crisis erupted, Diefenbaker reacted with petulant skepticism, demanding firmer proof that Soviet missiles were actually on the island and refusing to raise Canadian troops to high alert. It’s also likely that the Canadian prime minister bore something of a deep personal spite for the privileged and popular American president 22 years his junior.

Dief the Chief was succeeded in 1963 by Lester Pearson, a bookish diplomat known for his lisping speeches and bow ties, who had served briefly as Canada’s ambassador to Washington in the mid-1940s. Which was perhaps why, when he ran for prime minister in 1963, improving relations between Canada and the United States was a central plank of his election platform. But by the time Pearson was elected, Lyndon B. Johnson had ascended to the U.S. presidency, and personalities once again became a problem. Where JFK’s aloof elitism had roiled the populist Diefenbaker, Pearson’s credentials with the egghead set were considered insufferably condescending by the brassy LBJ.

In the spring of 1965, just before attending a bilateral summit at Camp David, Pearson delivered a lecture at Philadelphia’s Temple University. In those remarks, the prime minister, who had received the 1957 Nobel Peace Prize for mediating the end of the Suez Crisis in Egypt, offered a very gentle tactical critique of what he called America’s “honorable” mission in Vietnam. Perhaps, Pearson remarked, a temporary cessation of bombings could afford the “Hanoi authorities with an opportunity, if they wish to take it, to inject some flexibility into their policy without appearing to do so as the direct result of military pressure.”

At Camp David the next day, a possibly apocryphal piece of Canadian lore holds that the 6-foot-3 Johnson yanked the prime minister by his lapels, almost shaking the glasses off his head. “Don’t you come into my living room and piss on my rug,” the Texan bellowed.

Things scarcely improved over the next decade with Richard Nixon and Pierre Elliott Trudeau, whose mutual distaste, though usually concealed from the cameras, nevertheless exacerbated a relationship already tense over growing trade protectionism and border-crossing draft-dodgers.

In White House Years, Henry Kissinger describes the older Trudeau, an urbane liberal intellectual, as “bound to evoke all of Nixon’s resentments against ‘swells’ who in his view had always looked down on him.” For his part, the cocksure Trudeau appeared perfectly happy to provoke Nixon, whom he considered a small-minded reactionary whose Cold War worldview was frozen in 1950s McCarthyism. Eager to demonstrate his Canadian open-mindedness, Trudeau forged ostentatious friendships with Marxist strongmen Washington viewed warily, including Fidel Castro. Following Ottawa’s 1970 recognition of the People’s Republic of China, in 1973 the prime minister was feted with a grand state visit in Beijing — a spectacle that upstaged Nixon, who was planning a similar trip of his own.

But while the animosity may have boiled between these leaders, the heat of it never really aired in public view. While the two men had drastically different styles — unlike the flamboyant, flashy-dressing Trudeau, no one would ever accuse Nixon of being a sex symbol — both men were polite and businesslike during their formal interactions. Trudeau even hosted a state dinner for Nixon in which the president fortuitously toasted the then-newborn Justin as a “future prime minister.” Their harshest words were relegated to behind-the-back barbs; during the Watergate trial, scrutiny of the Nixon tapes would reveal the president had privately described Trudeau as “that asshole” to aides. Trudeau sniped back in his memoirs saying he’d been called “worse things by better people.”

Half a decade later, the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and that of Brian Mulroney in Canada four years later heralded some much-needed rapprochement. The two leaders were well matched: They shared an avuncular back-slapping demeanor, a joint distaste for the liberal regimes that had preceded them, and a mutual fascination with their shared heritage. “Don’t go to Ireland again without me,” Reagan implored at their first meeting.

Now more than 20 years out of office, Mulroney is fond of characterizing himself as something of the third amigo in the Thatcher-Reagan conservative alliance that helped reshape politics in the English-speaking world. This is perhaps a tad generous, but on the substantial issues that defined North America’s right-leaning 1980s — deregulation, tax cuts, Gorbachev — the two leaders were firmly on the same page.

At times, their fast friendship — constant phone calls, yearly meetings, an unprecedented two state dinners at the White House — could be cloying. At a 1985 summit, they literally broke into song during a St. Patrick’s Day-themed musical review. At a time when cross-border trade was a subject of ongoing discussion, a Canadian prime minister so obviously under the White House’s spell similarly could throw his country’s left-leaning voters into near-hysterics that Mulroney would be charmed into surrendering the farm. But Mulroney was unperturbed by such “silliness,” responding with calm insistence that closeness did not imply subordination, and he was ultimately unmoved to alter his friendly relationship with Reagan.

“Not much happens on the international scale between Canada and the United States if there’s not a personal relationship between the president and the prime minister,” Mulroney would later conclude. As far as cross-border warmth goes, the Reagan-Mulroney relationship, not surprisingly, remains the gold standard.

A 1993 partisan flip in both countries saw Democrat Bill Clinton take office the same year as Liberal Jean Chrétien in Canada. Chrétien, the thick-accented French-Canadian lawyer from rural Quebec, found an easy rapport with Clinton, the thick-accented southern lawyer from rural Arkansas, and throughout the 1990s, the two were a constant presence on golf courses across the continent. As proud centrists, it was revealing that the greatest legacy of their partnership was the peaceful implementation of something neither man’s partisan base had ever fully supported — continentwide free trade.

When Clinton left office in 2001, Chrétien was faced with George W. Bush, a sheltered man who did not bat an eye when an undercover comedian, posing as a Canadian reporter, casually referred to the prime minister of Canada as Jean “Poutine” — a French-Canadian junk food. The two had little in common — which may be why Chrétien ultimately concluded the new president was most useful as a foil when the prime minister wanted to demonstrate Canada’s foreign-policy independence in the age of the War on Terror. And in Canada’s biggest policy deviation on a public platform since Vietnam, Ottawa pointedly refused to endorse Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq — a move that infuriated Washington but gave Chrétien a boost at home. The prime minister’s opposition to the war, however, was always more performative than substantial: America’s ambassador would later claim that Canada actually offered greater behind-the-scenes logistical support for the war effort than many of the European states nominally onside. But even superficial resistance to something the United States wants will always get a warm reception among a certain class of Canadians who define their nation’s virtues entirely in contrast to American folly — as it did with Vietnam and again with the war in Iraq.

And on that note, Canadians have been known to chime that “an American liberal is a Canadian conservative,” but the rise of the progressive Obama and the studiously right-wing Stephen Harper seems evidence to the contrary. The Harper-Obama years represent the longest period in which a Canadian conservative administration overlapped with a liberal American one since the Diefenbaker-Kennedy years, and their relationship was marked by comparable tension. Deeply ideological, Harper had sat on the opposite side of Obama for many of the past decade’s debates, particularly the Iraq War, which the president had denounced as a first-term senator at the same time that the prime minister, then in opposition, had defended it on Fox News.

But it was global warming that would prove the greatest cleavage with Harper, who had sniffed skeptically about the problem in the past, investing tremendous political capital into the construction of a cross-country pipeline to deliver Alberta bitumen to refineries in Texas. The plan required White House approval, which Harper described as a “no-brainer“ — cocky language that masked the prime minister’s growing anxiety over whether Obama was disposed to treat the pipeline as a symbol of the evils of fossil fuels. After long delays, Obama eventually vetoed construction, and reporting is only now starting to reveal the sheer scope of Harper’s vindictive irritation — including bureaucratic bullying of the U.S. ambassador — in response to a liberal administration he never trusted or liked.

And though the 2015 election of Justin Trudeau has returned philosophic harmony to the continent, Obama’s term has mere months remaining. Assuming Trudeau serves the standard decade-or-so tenure of a Canadian prime minister, this week’s state dinner will unlikely prove more than a mere page in the opening chapter of a long and eventful reign. Even a joint statement on climate change — which the two are said to be hoping to draft during this visit — will likely have little impact given the president’s still dwindling sway with Congress.

None of Obama’s likely successors appears a natural soulmate for Canada’s leader. The gap separating a substantial stateswoman like Hillary Clinton from the idealistic and untested Justin Trudeau seems vast, and the prime minister has already said he has “nothing but condemnation” for the divisive nationalism of Donald Trump. And Trudeau, who once debated Ted Cruz in college, remarked that even some 20 years later the Texas senator “hasn’t changed much.”

It may not matter. Trudeau has never identified American issues among his top priorities — his 2015 campaign emphasized domestic matters far above foreign policy — and beyond being a Star Wars junkie, there’s little in his background to suggest that the United States even interests him all that much. On the Syrian refugee issue, his government’s headline-grabbing generosity has been framed more as an opportunity to prove Canada’s tolerance and commitment to diversity than an international obligation per se, and a widely criticized decision to end Canadian airstrikes against Islamic State targets clearly made more sense to political observers at home than the country’s allies abroad. But the United States certainly seems interested in the dynamic new prime minister; even before his trip to Washington, Trudeau’s celebrity pedigree, quips about feminism, and photo-ops with refugees were making headlines in the States.

Regardless of whether Trudeau and Obama become fast friends and make the most of their dwindling time together, or whether, come fall, the United States elects a divisive president who sours the relationship, Ottawa and Washington will remain neighbors linked by the landscape they share — both political and geographic.

Photo credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

J.J. McCullough is a Canadian political commentator, columnist, and cartoonist who often appears on television and radio. His work has appeared on CBC, CNN, and the Huffington Post.

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