Justin Trudeau debuts as Canada’s prime minister at G20, APEC

With the advent of Prime Minster Justin Trudeau, Canada has come back to the world scene.

In less than two weeks after he and his Cabinet were sworn in at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Nov. 4, he made his debut as Canada’s prime minister at the G20 summit at Antalya, Turkey (Nov.15-16) and then at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Manila, the Philippines (Nov. 18-19) – with modest success.

Several Canadian media even gave high grades to his diplomatic debut. Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson said in his article on Nov. 21: “Justin Trudeau … in one short week has transformed the way Canada is seen by the world.”

At these summits, handsome-looking Trudeau – at 43, second youngest Canadian prime minister, and the son of the very popular former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau – was the center of attention. He was also getting good reviews from foreign leaders, according to one pundit. (Reuters, Nov. 20)

All foreign leaders at these summits knew that Trudeau’s center-left Liberals won last month’s federal election promising Canada would play a bigger global role than it had done under the inward-looking Conservatives of Stephen Harper.

Fellow leaders at the summits were intrigued by how Trudeau had won such a big landslide victory by talking of “sunny ways” and respect rather than bashing his opponents. (Reuters, Nov. 20) These leaders are after all politicians, who are interested in how to win elections more than any other topic.

Trudeau was so popular that he was mobbed by local journalists covering the summits and staffers at the conferences when he tried to walk out of the conference building. While many of them were trying to take his photos for their media or selfies for themselves, and women staffers trying to touch him, the crowd quickly swelled to more than 100 people so that Trudeau had to be guided off the summit place by body guards. Inside, he was also busy posing for selfies with business executives and even some foreign leaders. The Ottawa Sun (Nov. 19) and some other Canadian media reported the phenomenon, by calling Trudeau, with some sarcastic tone, “Prime Minister Selfie.”

He was even chosen by local social media netizens as the “APEChottie” – eclipsing U.S. President Obama, who had been a sort of regular on the top of the “APEChottie” ranking as the “coolest leader on earth.” Obama came in as the third on the ranking while Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto ranked second. The Philippine Daily Inquirer featured big photos of Trudeau and Nieto at the top of the front page and a story headlined, “Girls have only eyes for Trudeau, Nieto.” (Nov. 18)

When debuting on the world stage, “there doesn’t have to be a lot of substance. He just has to get through (the summit and bilateral meetings) and create good impressions along the way,” said Toronto-based pollster John Wright. (Reuters, Nov. 20)

Especially, his first meeting with President Obama was a big success. Thanks partly to Obama’s kind words and consideration, the bilateral summit was held in a very warm friendly atmosphere. After the 20 minutes of private talks, closeted with their advisers, journalists were invited to isten to their warm banter, shared smiles and handshakes – all meant to signal the reset of relations between Washington and Ottawa, which had been chilled to the worst level under Prime Minister Harper’s Conservative government. (Toronto Star, Nov. 19)

In the meeting, held on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Manila, President Obama was quoted by many Canadian papers as telling Trudeau, “We’ve seen the incredible excitement that Justin generated with his campaign in Canada. I’m confident that he’s going to be able to provide a great boost of energy and reform to the Canadian political landscape.”

Then President Obama invited Trudeau and his wife to visit the White House and the visit is expected to be arranged sometime in early next year.

Obama disclosed to reporters about his “advice” to Prime Minister Trudeau: “The first call I made to him, I said, ‘Justin, congratulations. You and your family look great. I know Canadians are incredibly inspired by your message of hope and change. I just want to point out that I had no grey hair when I was in your shoes seven years ago, and so if you don’t want to [go] grey like me, you need to start dyeing it soon.” Both Obama and Trudeau are liberals and chemistry works well, maybe.

But chemistry is not everything to make diplomacy work well. Nevertheless, the two leaders put aside the two main difficult questions souring their relations – the Keystone XL pipeline, the construction of which Obama has rejected to approve, and Trudeau’s campaign promise to pull Canadian fighter jets from the bombing of Islamic State – Obama an Trudeau discussed the issues they are interested in – cooperating on the climate change issue ahead of COP 21 beginning in Paris on Nov. 30 and receiving more Syrian refugees as asylums.

It is important to note, in terms of establishing good relations with allies, other leaders appear to have accepted Trudeau’s election campaign commitment to withdraw from the air campaign against the Islamic State – at least so far, despite the fact that 130 people were killed in the Paris terrorist attacks. Neither Obama nor any other world leaders directly asked him to reverse that decision, according to government sources. (Instead, Trudeau proposes Canada will step up training of the Iraqi soldiers to fight better the terrorists.)

After the Commonwealth meeting in Malta on this weekend, Prime Minister Trudeau will then be headed for Paris for COP 21 meeting with a large Canadian delegation made up of provincial premiers and even opposition party leaders to present whatever the country should and can do for the global climate change and show a united Canada to the world. The real test may come soon.

By Yoshikazu Ishizuka, senior consultant, TOCS

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