Much discussion in Canada today of the Trudeau visit to DC. There is some grumbling about the flash and style of the Obama-Trudeau lovefest. And this could be the silliest backlash ever. Trudeau and Obama apparently get along. Um, isn't that good news for Canada?
Yes, as a political scientist, I am required to argue that structures, institutions, and organizations matter and personality does not. But the reality is that personality does matter, as I learned working in Rumsfeld's Pentagon. That Harper and Obama had a lousy relationship was visible to everyone made a difference in the two countries' getting stuff done.
To be sure, interests matter, lobbies matter, and all that, so no matter the pairing of President and PM, US-Canada relations are never going to be either perfect or horrid. Even when Harper and Obama did not get along much, the border was open, business was conducted, and the two countries fought alongside each other and supported each other in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere.
But personal relationships do matter in international relations. Positive ones lubricate the gears of the interactions, and lousy ones put sand into the bilateral machinery. There was quite a list of stuff, mostly medium level and below, that came out of the various meetings. Summits are like academic conferences: they create artificial deadlines that force the relevant actors to make progress. And it seems like some progress was made.
Of course, the Canadian Conservatives will pooh-pooh the outpouring of love for JT because it is their job and because they don't remember what it is like to have a leader who is, um, likeable and well liked. There is more to US-Canadian relations than Trudeau's good looks and charisma, but it does not hurt to have someone who is likable to be the primary representative of Canada in the world.
The bigger tests are ahead--will Trudeau stay in message and not faux pas along the way? Even the most experienced can mess up (see Hillary Clinton and her comments on Nancy Reagan). And the substance will eventually outweigh the style stuff, as it always does. But the style and message--that diversity is good, that we don't have much to fear--is pretty damned positive and what is wrong with that?
Well played, with lousy camera work.