Washington’s state dinner is over — what’s next?

Obama and Trudeau announced their shared vision last week. Were the new initiatives the end goal of the trip and will there be time to implement them? 

By: /
March 16, 2016
President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are seen on the South Lawn of the White House during the arrival ceremony in Washington March 10, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Still riding high from a successful trip to Washington last week — where a high-level Canadian delegation was honoured with a state dinner at the White House — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau returns to the U.S. Wednesday for meetings with the UN.

Last week’s dinner, complete with miniature Rocky Mountain landscape scenes made out of pastries and poutine-themed duck canapés, marked Trudeau’s first official visit to the United States as prime minister.

His name is likely still on the tongues of many Americans.  

It didn’t take long for the Internet to explode in #Trubama fever when he arrived last week. Articles about Trudeau’s visit pegged it as a “Bromance without borders,” and even The New York Times weighed in on the two leaders’ fondness for one another.

While the visit was brief, Trudeau and President Barack Obama did announce their shared vision for combating climate change, more information-sharing at border crossings and plans for a joint cyber-security initiative, to name a few.

But, in less than a year, Obama will pack his things from the West Wing, and be replaced by another head of state. Will there be time for the prime minister and president’s vision to be implemented?  And if not, what might be Obama’s intention with such a big showing?

Geoffrey Hale, assistant professor in the department of political science at the University of Lethbridge, suggested that Obama sees Trudeau as a younger version of himself who may help him establish some markers that would pad his legacy and move his climate change initiative along. “I think you have that mix of motives a bit there,” said Hale. “Canada per Canada is never important for its own sake in Washington and if we try to pretend otherwise, we are kidding ourselves.”

Hale described the visit as a political window “to get people in Washington who don't pay a lot of attention to Canada at the best of times to at least put some issues of mutual interest on the to-do list.”

Hale, who specializes in U.S.-Canada relations, said there are never any guarantees that whoever succeeds Obama will maintain that to-do list – or that they would be as accommodating to the Canadian prime minister. Primary elections in the U.S. are in full swing and, judging by the current Democratic and Republican front-runners, Trudeau may be faced with a new president who does not ideologically align with his vision of “real change.”

Since taking office last October, Trudeau has made strengthening U.S.-Canada relations one of his priorities. Even in the lead up to the election, Trudeau said of Canada’s ties with its southern neighbour, “Like any strong relationship, you have to put a lot of work into it, and earn it. There is nothing preordained about our influence or value in Washington’s eyes.”

Stephen Blank, a senior fellow and special advisor to the Collaboratory on Energy Research and Policy at the University of Ottawa, said that despite a successful visit, issues important to Trudeau wouldn’t necessarily be high on the president’s priority list for his last months in office.

Obama is going to be incredibly busy with the budget, with increasing the debt limit, with trying to get someone on the Supreme Court,” said Blank. "What Trudeau is in a wonderful position to do is to reach out to a much wider array of leaders in the U.S., and I wish Mexico but that's maybe a bridge too far, and get to know people. To assemble new groups, new advisers, who are active and have influence. But you don't do that in Washington." 

Canadians have to understand that the increased polarization in U.S. politics and the Congressional backlog the country is facing “is not going to come to an end,” said Blank. “Nationally, there is an incredible riot happening right now.”

Domestic political hurdles slow down or stall agreements on both sides of the border. With Republican control over the House of Representatives and likely the Senate, explained Blank, Canada will have to develop another strategy to handle contentious bilateral issues without relying on Washington, such as “building coalitions and alliances” elsewhere in the U.S. On Canada’s side, provincial consent can also have an impact on these agreements. 

“If all you have is a memorandum of understanding between the two governments, that binds the agencies in question but it doesn't bind anybody else,” said Hale. “Even when you have [that], do civil servants in both governments have the same understanding of what those words mean…or is it a 'we'll figure out what it means later' wording? Which is what we've been dealing with [regarding] softwood lumber for decades.” 

Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper tried for years to pass the Keystone XL pipeline without success, causing major tension in relations between the two North American partners. Harper’s pro-oil stance did not fit well with Obama’s hope of leaving behind a green legacy.

Despite this, Canadians have consistently held a favourable view of the United States over Obama’s tenure. According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center in October of last year, 68 percent of Canadians have a favourable opinion of America. And about three-quarters have confidence in Obama to handle international affairs.

Trudeau and Obama will share the stage at least one more time when the president arrives in Ottawa this summer for the Three Amigos Summit between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. The same kind of fanfare and press coverage that greeted Trudeau’s White House visit is sure to replicate itself when Obama addresses the Canadian parliament.

Ultimately, it’s important to keep in mind that the president is “but one player among many other powerful players, with the legislative branch being extremely powerful in the U.S.,” said Monica Gattinger, director of the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa.

“Building those relationships, and the signal that…the White House receiving the new Canadian prime minister [sends] is a very important one,” said Gattinger. “It helps the new government begin to build those relationships with legislators.”  

These agreements are first steps and will depend on the political willingness of both countries to implement them, she said.