Obama and Trudeau: a brief bond

The leaders of the United States and Canada have much in common, but history will separate them.

    Obama and Trudeau: a brief bond
    The State Dining Room before the state dinner with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the White House in Washington [Evan Vucci/AP]

    New York, United States - Since Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came to power, a chummy relationship has emerged between him and US President Barack Obama. The liberal-minded leaders have quipped about everything from hockey rivalry to how leadership begets grey hairs.

    But the cosy bond will be short-lived. Trudeau, 44, took office in November, Obama, 54, vacates his in January 2017. The elder statesman has little time to advise his fresh-faced colleague about advancing a progressive agenda in the face of right-wing hostility.

    Trudeau's three-day state visit in Washington is one such opportunity. On Thursday, expect red carpet welcomes, a spotlight on the two leaders' stylish wives, and Trudeau achieving his stated goal of "having a beer" with Obama.

    Before the event, the US National Security Council's Mark Feierstein called Obama and Trudeau progressive "young leaders with similar visions" who are committed to multilateral efforts on climate change, Syrian refugees and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).

    Style and substance

    Trudeau's campaign mirrored Obama's platform of "hope" and "change" in 2008. But conservative critics ask whether there is much beyond Trudeau's youthful optimism and photos of his ex-model wife, Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau, appearing in fashion monthlies.

    WATCH: Canada's salt lakes help reduce carbon emissions

    "For both leaders, it's about style and substance," Steven Edwards, an analyst of US-Canada relations, told Al Jazeera.

    "Obama may have been too focused on his image in the early years of his presidency and struggled to deliver his promise of change. Trudeau could learn from this," Edwards pointed out.

    "Instead of worrying about Hollywood-style appearances in Vogue magazine, he should pay more attention to government policy and running his country," Edwards said.

    Eschewing such tittle-tattle, the two leaders say they will get down to business and a hefty agenda this week, focused on security, climate change and trade along an 8,850km border that is worth as much as $1.3 trillion each year.

    They are set to unveil environmental pledges, such as reductions on oil and gas industry methane emissions by between 40-45 percent and safeguards for an Arctic that is emerging from its mildest winter ever recorded.

    Trudeau speaks of a "nice alignment" between his environmental views and Obama's. Cutting a deal in Washington would mark a shift from his right-wing predecessor, Stephen Harper, who bickered with Obama over an oil pipeline and was accused of backtracking on climate promises.

    According to Barry Rabe, a Michigan University academic, little of substance will come from the Oval Office on Thursday morning. Back home, the Canadian premier has struggled to convince regional leaders to adopt his carbon-pricing plans.

    "Here, a lame duck President Obama could cut a legacy deal on climate change before stepping down. Trudeau, who entered office to a fanfare, needs to save face and deliver something after failing to reach a major accommodation with Canada's provinces," Rabe told Al Jazeera.

    "But aside from the charisma we've seen in their interactions, there is still a big question over their achieving anything beyond the symbolic. Short of Obama moving Congress and Trudeau moving the provinces, what can they agree to?"

    Getting back on the global stage

    Officials from both capitals extol the importance of trade ties that see some $2bn worth of goods and 400,000 people cross the border each day. Some 75 percent of Canada's exports go to the US. Canada is the top export destination for 33 US states.

    This also throws up problems, including a simmering row over softwood lumber exports.

    Both countries have ratified the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and while Obama likes the trade deal, Trudeau's government is expected to hold regional and parliamentary debates before throwing its weight behind the sweeping agreement.

    WATCH: Inside Story - Will Trudeau's victory make a change in Canada?

    For John McArthur, a Canadian-born academic with the UN Foundation think-tank, Trudeau must roll his sleeves up.

    "Trudeau's White House visit is a high-profile embodiment of his new government's drive to put Canada back on the global stage. To achieve this, Canada needs to leapfrog forward in a manner commensurate with the world's fast-shifting contours," McArthur told Al Jazeera.

    "We need to see new efforts in education, research, non-profits, business, investment and in our civil society. If our academics, businesspeople and politicians all do their parts, Canada will indeed be back - and for the long haul," McArthur said.

    In February, Trudeau fulfilled a campaign pledge by halting Canadian air strikes on ISIL rebels in Iraq and Syria. While this dented Obama's multi-nation force against the radicals, Trudeau boosted his deployment of military trainers to Iraqi Kurdistan.

    Trudeau's decision to open the doors to 25,000 Syrian refugees followed Obama's accommodation of 10,000 others. Conservatives liken Trudeau's overtures towards Muslims to Obama's refusal to link Islam with violence.

    Shabnam Assadollahi, an Iranian-Canadian rights campaigner, sees problems down the line.

    "Trudeau has been called Canada's Obama for his lack of experience, socialist philosophy and tendency to circumvent parliamentary debate and elected officials. Like Obama, his tax-and-spend policies will leave future generations paying the bill," Assadollahi told Al Jazeera.

    "Trudeau's embrace of Islam and large numbers of Middle Eastern refugees is seen by many in the US as gullible and a golden opportunity for religious radicals. Only time will tell what impact these soft policies have on North American security."

    At the first US state banquet for a Canadian leader since 1997, guests will clink glasses as television reporters identify the dressmakers of the gowns worn by US first lady Michelle Obama and her Canadian counterpart.

    But a brighter spotlight will be shining further south in the US.

    In Florida, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and others seeking the Republican presidential nomination will be at the University of Miami for the latest in a series of abrasive election debates.

    Trudeau said he will not "pick a fight" with Trump, despite the billionaire's diatribes against Muslims, Mexicans and others. The Liberal leader would doubtless have more shared policy priorities with a Democrat replacing Obama in the Oval Office.

    Trudeau remains impartial, but one Canadian website has sparked a flood of interest for suggesting that Americans should abandon the US and move to a Nova Scotia island if Trump wins November's ballot.

    Since "Cape Breton if Donald Trump Wins" went up on February 16, the website has attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors and floods of emails asking about job opportunities and work visas.

    Depending on how the election plays out, it could get more web traffic yet.

    Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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