Cometh the hour, cometh the man. And in this rather depressing hour for the US – what with The Donald and a pervasive sense that the country has lost its way – what better to lift the spirits than a visit from the chirpy and admiring new leader of an old neighbour?
So it was in Washington last week. Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada for roughly 18 weeks, was in town for an official visit, capped by a glitzy quasi-state dinner at the White House, an honour not accorded a Canadian leader for nearly two decades.
I say “quasi-state” because young Justin is merely head of government, and the Queen remains Canada’s head of state. But for all intents and purposes it was the real thing: much ado in the local society press, careful analysis of the guest list, scholarly deconstruction of the menu and affectionate speeches by President Obama and his guest.
His name clearly helps – Justin’s father Pierre, one of the very few Canadians most Americans have ever heard of, generated a first round of “Trudeaumania” when he came to Washington a couple of times as the country’s Prime Minister, back in the 1970s. And for a few days last week, “Trudeaumania” was back in town. Who’d have thought there’d be a queue “a mile long” to get into a think-tank reception for a Canadian PM?
Such excitement is pretty infrequent here. It happened recently with the visit of Pope Francis. But the last foreign political dignitary to cause such a fuss was Mikhail Gorbachev, countenance of the Evil Empire yet exuding the early promise of perestroika and glasnost, when he made his first trip to DC as Soviet leader in December 1987 to sign an arms control agreement. Office workers and Christmas shoppers in downtown Washington were stunned as Gorbachev stopped his motorcade to get out and press the flesh.
For a British observer, the Obama/Trudeau show brought back memories of the first meetings between a second-term Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Once again, a battle hardened Democratic president was welcoming a youthful, and similarly liberal-minded prime minister from one of America’s closest allies.
This time, Trudeau was a reminder of the “hope and change” Obama who captivated the world when he took office in 2009, just as back in the late 1990s the freshly elected, boyish-looking Tony Blair seemed like a British version of original Bill Clinton, emblem of a political generation change. Cool and sometimes distant, Obama doesn’t have many bosom pals among his foreign counterparts – but he praised Trudeau as an “inspiration for young people everywhere”. And let the British beware. Diplomats of the two countries are already talking about a new “special relationship”.
Let’s not get carried away, however. A new North American entente is not going to change the world. The US, as it always has, will basically take Canada for granted – to the extent of once flying the Canadian flag upside down during a World Series baseball game featuring the Toronto Blue Jays.
As for Canada, reliant on the US for three-quarters of its trade, there will always be difficulties. Trudeau père hit the nail on the head back in 1969. Living next to the US, he observed then, “is like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”
The two have entrenched images of the other. For Americans, Canada is an earnest, worthy place, full of nice but rather boring people, with an unnatural aversion to guns and a bizarre attachment to the notion of guaranteed medical coverage for all. Canadians seem to find Americans generous, friendly, if a touch arrogant, yet oddly backward, especially when it comes to guns and healthcare.
But they get on pretty well, sharing a common language as well as the world’s longest border (5,500 miles). There are eternal and Byzantine disputes about logging and softwood lumber – and a more recent one over energy, when the US rejected last year an extension to the Keystone pipeline that would have brought Canadian tar-sands oil to southern US refineries. The previous conservative government in Ottawa was furious. Now, though, when it comes to pollution, climate change and Arctic conservation, Obama and the younger Trudeau are one.
And right now, thanks to Trump, Canada has rarely looked better to many Americans. Obama himself couldn’t resist a joking allusion at the White House dinner, thanking “Canadians from British Columbia to New Brunswick”, who “have so far rejected the idea of building a wall to keep out your southern neighbours” – not to mention the idea of getting excluded Americans to pay for the whole thing, as Trump vows to do with Mexico.
Furthermore, he added, “Where else would we see a community like Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, welcoming Americans if the election does not go their way?” But it is really a joke? Americans, it seems, are starting to take the offer of refuge from Trumpdom rather seriously.
The closer Trump gets to the Republican nomination, the more popular internet searches become here on “How to Move to Canada?”. According to an Ipsos poll last week, 19 per cent of Americans would consider resettling north of the border if Trump wins. (But then again, 15 per cent said they would do the same in the event of President Hillary Clinton. Who said this isn’t a polarised country?)
Does any of this much matter? Probably not. As noted, a reinvigorated friendship between Canada and the US won’t greatly change world affairs. In 10 months, Obama will be gone and the charismatic young Trudeau may find himself dealing with a President Trump. But these have been a refreshing couple of days in Washington, a sorely needed break from domestic political wars. And in an ever more chaotic and dangerous world, it is truly heartening that the planet’s second and fourth largest countries are getting along better than any time in years.
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