Whether or not U.S. President Donald Trump shows up at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will once again face a delicate balance in negotiating his public relationship with the American leader.
Political and business observers say that even if Trudeau is in Davos to talk up Canada’s values and to woo investors, the Trump effect will very much be hanging over the entire forum, and especially over Canada’s head.
NAFTA talks are at a critical point this week in Montreal and Trudeau must continue to do the careful dance of not alienating the president, nor appearing to be in his pocket.
“So far, Trudeau has really practised and scripted his relationship with Donald Trump, so that he’s not taken advantage of by President Trump, but neither that he challenges him in a way that would generate push back,” said Laura Dawson, director of the Canada Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.
Trudeau, she says, can’t deviate from that tack.
Trump is expected to arrive in Davos on Thursday and give the closing keynote speech the following day. But since the crisis talks began over the U.S. government shutdown, his presence was thrown into question. A deal late Monday to end the shutdown does, however, make that attendance more likely.
Trudeau’s first, and most recent, time at Davos came two years ago and, and even though it was well before Trump took office, Trudeau’s message was the opposite of what Trump, the presidential candidate, was saying.
Strengthening trading relationships
Trudeau extolled the benefits of diversity, equality and declared Canada open for business.
Since Trump became president, Trudeau has been, and continues to be, very careful to not say anything that would directly criticize the U.S. president. By all accounts, he’s been successful in his navigation of this relationship, considering Trump has told supporters that regardless of the ongoing trade disputes between the two countries, he likes Trudeau and that he’s a “good guy.”
Davos, with or without Trump, is an opportunity for Trudeau to reaffirm this key relationship in public, especially as critical NAFTA talks take place in Montreal this very week. At the same time Trudeau has the opportunity to make it known that Canada is open to trading with other countries who are game to do so.
The Liberal government has been seeking to do what Canadian governments have sought for a long time: to diversify the country’s trade.
“This is an opportunity for Mr. Trudeau to make it clear we want to strengthen our trading relationships,” said Perrin Beatty, president and CEO of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.
Trudeau’s dimming light
While Trudeau cannot afford to be as obviously outspoken against Trump as some other world leaders, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel or French President Emmanuel Macron, that doesn’t mean he has to shy away from the clear differences between himself and Trump.
“We can’t keep papering over the fact that Mr. Trump and Mr. Trudeau have different views of the world. I think he’s done a masterful job at trying to build a constructive relationship, but really, they’re not part of the same part of the universe,” said John Manley, president and CEO of the Business Council of Canada.
Dawson said one thing that is not an obvious positive in Trudeau’s relationship dance with Trump, but might work in Trudeau’s favour, is that Trudeau is no longer as shiny and new as he was two years ago.
“In many ways, it might be a bit easier for Trudeau as the lustre has come off his international reputation. Not that he has a bad reputation, but he is not the pop star anymore,” said Dawson.
“I think…getting more attention than Donald Trump is dangerous to that guy’s desire to be popular. So he can be a bit more of a regular guy, which is probably more advantageous to the bilateral relationship.”
And if Trump comes, it won’t be until Thursday, right around when Trudeau will depart, so there will be little overlap and Trudeau will miss Trump’s scheduled keynote speech.
That means Trudeau won’t have to guard his facial expressions carefully, as some other world leaders have neglected to do in the past, such as when the cameras caught Macron rolling his eyes at one point during Trump’s speech at his first visit to NATO last May.