Justin Trudeau is discovering a truth that reveals itself to every new prime minister by the time they have been in office for a couple of years.
Ottawa is a grand place to live and raise kids (which Trudeau can appreciate more than most, having been born there), but it is an even grander place to escape from – to abandon the petty partisanship of Parliament Hill and fly off to meet other world leaders somewhere, anywhere far from the Ottawa bubble.
Far away from the daily grind over such issues as the blind trust that Bill Morneau should have established; over the Quebec’s Bill 62, the impending law that would require niqab- or burka-wearing Muslim woman to bare their faces when requesting or receiving public services (even a ride on a municipal bus); over the seemingly impossible balancing act between pipeline construction on one hand and the protection of the environment and respect for Indigenous treaty rights on the other; and, most recently, over the offshore investment activities of Trudeau’s friend and Liberal party chief fundraiser Stephen Bronfman.
It’s enough to make any prime minister (except perhaps a Trudeau) question why they wanted the job in the first place.
Trudeau is making the most of his escape. He is in Manila today and tomorrow at the tail-end of an eight-day journey that has taken him to Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Danang in Vietnam, to a head-of-government meeting on Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and to a similar gathering of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the first time Canada had been invited to an ASEAN summit.
Along the way, he met with Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi, an honorary Canadian, about human rights abuses in Myanmar and the attacks that have driven more than 600,000 of her country’s Rohingya Muslims into exile in neighbouring Bangladesh. He also had an introductory meeting with Jacinda Audern, the new (since October) prime minister of New Zealand.
His more important bilateral meetings, though, were on conference sidelines with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The three trading partners share a common interest – finding a way to work around Donald Trump’s America First trade policy that threatens to undo the work of other nations to knock down trade barriers and open the world to a freer exchange of goods and services.
Trump appears determined to kill the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and he has already an announced the United States will not join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade accord.
The Harper Conservative government never had any real interest in the TTP and would have followed Trump’s lead. The Liberals will join if they can get some key concessions on intellectual property (especially as it affects IT), and protection for cultural industries and for the auto sector. As his Asian trip wound down – despite some blowback from the Australian media at the weekend – it appeared as though Trudeau will win the concessions he seeks.
For that, he can thank the Trump factor as much as his own venture into trade diplomacy. Other leaders know they cannot afford to stand helplessly by while Trump tries to bend and twist international relationships to suit his isolationist approach to the world. They know that Trump’s angry nationalism threatens everything from trade to immigration to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
All or most of them have discovered the perils of dealing with a rogue president, a man who tweets before he thinks, a president whose White House exits in a state of chaos if not civil war, a president who thinks he can run roughshod over Congress and the courts. He is the leader of a political party that cannot summon the will to bring him to heel, a party that appears to be nearing the point of disintegrating from its own impotence.
Donald Trump changes everything. Other nations are learning they must stand together to resist that change.