For Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Monday’s meeting at the White House with Donald Trump went pretty much as well as possible. Trump promised that any change in the binational trade relationship would be a “tweak,” while Trudeau got a meme-able moment of subtle resistance to Trump, when he refused to succumb to the president’s overbearing handshake.
For the most part, their first meeting glossed over the awkwardness of the Trump-Trudeau relationship so far. Earlier this month, Trudeau took a dig at the president’s executive order banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries by tweeting a welcome message to refugees himself, while Trump’s press secretary angered many Canadian officials by using a shooting at a Quebec mosque to justify the travel ban, even though the alleged shooter was a white, right-wing French Canadian.
Temperamentally, the two administrations are quite different. In the age of Trump’s loud nativism, many American progressives have seen Canada as part of the resistance movement, a bulwark against his most illiberal tendencies. As Nicholas Kristof wrote in a column for the Times, Canada “may now be the finest example of the values of the Statue of Liberty,” because of its openness to immigration and continuing commitment to refugees. Over 40,000 displaced Syrians have already been resettled in the country.
But when Trudeau met Trump on Monday, he was careful not to explicitly criticize the president. Trudeau stood by while Trump defended the travel ban. “The last thing Canadians expect is for me to come down and lecture another country on how they choose to govern themselves,” he said. His silence was rooted in the same paradox that faces every Canadian leader—how far can Canada go in criticizing its one major strategic partner?
There’s a strong incentive for Canada’s leaders never to speak ill of an American president, no matter how unpopular his positions might be at home. Trudeau’s father, who served as prime minister in the ’70s and ’80s, once compared the relationship to “sleeping next to an elephant.” Canada is a member of many strategic partnerships with the U.S., like Five Eyes, which means our intelligence departments have deep access to each other’s resources. But when discussing the “special relationship” between Canada and the States, trade is a deeper and ultimately more fragile link. Three-quarters of Canada’s exports head south to the United States. NAFTA enshrines free trade between the two countries, while also ensuring certain Canadians have easier access to U.S. visas. For a government trying to keep that deal in place, picking fights with a capricious White House could have real consequences.
There was a time when Canadian prime ministers took on American presidents as a matter of course. In 1965, Lester B. Pearson called for a cessation of bombings in Vietnam. During a diplomatic visit to the White House later on, Lyndon Johnson is said to have grabbed Pearson up by the lapels and shouted, “Don’t you come into my living room and piss on my rug.”
There is no such grit today. While Jean Chrétien, a Liberal prime minister in the ’90s and ’00s, kept Canadian troops out of the Iraq war, he was always careful to tamp down criticism of George W. Bush inside his own party. He expressed displeasure when an aide called the president a “moron” (the aide resigned) and even kicked a member of Parliament out of his party for stomping on a Bush doll during a comedy show. While Stephen Harper, a Conservative, was clearly frustrated with Barack Obama over the Keystone pipeline, which Harper favored, he always emphasized his “great” friendship with the president, even if the two leaders never looked terribly comfortable side by side.
Trudeau has maintained this friendly neutrality. He remained silent during the presidential campaign, and issued a boilerplate letter of congratulations when Trump was elected. Since then, Trudeau’s official comments have been about agreement and compromise. He’s expressed a willingness to renegotiate NAFTA, an unpopular position at home. And according to several reports, Liberal MPs have been strongly advised to stay quiet on the new president.
Trudeau’s official neutrality was put to the test one week after the travel ban, when Canadian opposition parties called an emergency debate on immigration. For over an hour, members of the Conservative Party and the New Democratic Party or NDP—Canada’s social democrats—asked pointed questions about the government’s position on refugees and Trump’s executive order. Canada’s newly minted Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen talked about Canada’s commitment to refugees but refused to denounce Trump or Canada’s cap on Syrian refugees. That’s in sharp contrast to the NDP leader, who has gone so far as to call Trump a fascist.
For Trudeau, there is no good outcome when it comes to dealing with Trump. Polls suggest Canadians would be happy to see their government take on the American president. According to one, over 80 percent of Canadians disapprove of Trump’s performance, while another suggests 58 percent of Canadians would approve of a trade war with America if Trump introduced new tariffs. But officials in Trudeau’s government worry that Canada has more to lose in a trade fight with the United States, particularly after the Canadian economy went through a slowdown in 2016.
This Catch-22 coincides with the end of Trudeau’s political honeymoon. His support of the Keystone XL pipeline and other major energy projects has angered environmentalists, while his push for national carbon pricing has been unpopular with the right.* In the past few weeks, he’s reversed course on a campaign promise to introduce electoral reform and faced backlash over cash-for-access fundraisers where political donors were given access to Cabinet ministers.
For the first time since his election, the poll numbers have started to drop. A recent Ipsos poll shows a Conservative Party led by reality TV star Kevin O’Leary within 1 point of the Liberals, and Trudeau’s approval rating has fallen. Amid this bad news, the prime minister shuffled his Cabinet and embarked on a cross-Canada “listening tour” to re-engage with voters in local town halls. But rather than re-igniting Trudeau-mania, the tour resulted in several gaffes, including a confusing and widely criticized statement about First Nations youth needing more money for canoes.
Trudeau scores political points at home every time the media favorably compares him to the U.S. president. But he can only play up that contrast subtly, or he risks jeopardizing Canada’s relationship with Trump. The meeting between them was stilted and cordial. For Trudeau, that may be an atmosphere worth cultivating.
*Update, Feb. 15: This sentence has been updated to clarify that Trudeau has expressed support for the Keystone XL pipeline, which was formally approved before he became prime minister. (Return.)