Curiously optimistic in welcoming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s election a year ago, Latin America will examine up close this week a leader it has admired from afar. It will do so with even keener interest in light of the oncoming U.S. presidency of Donald Trump.In his first trip to the region as Prime Minister, Mr. Trudeau will meet with the newly elected presidents of Argentina and Peru who, like their regional leadership cohorts, share many of Mr. Trudeau’s priorities –“progressive”trade, environmental protection, social and financial inclusion, democratic renewal, compassionate immigration, human rights, multilateralism and indigenous integration.The leaders also actively court increased Canadian investment and trade in all sectors, particularly in infrastructure and responsible mining. Latin America is the third largest destination for Canadian foreign investment. Canadian investment ranks in the top five among all foreign investors in each of the Pacific Alliance countries, including Peru, where Mr. Trudeau will be hosted by newly-elected President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski.Under Mr. Trudeau, Canada has found common cause with regional friends on climate change policies. It has also taken an active, behind the scenes role in trying to hammer out a multilateral solution to the intractable political, economic and social degradation occurring in Venezuela. Mexico appreciates Mr. Trudeau’s restoration of a strong bilateral relationship and his commitment to NAFTA.However, many of the hemisphere’s long-range challenges and immediate crises require the collaboration of at least the largest countries. When the U.S. constructively collaborates with the hemisphere on matters of mutual interest, everyone benefits – including Canada.Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. has collaborated.Enter Mr. Trump.The president-elect’s only references to the region during his campaign were inflammatory comments about Mexicans, disparaging comments about NAFTA, and an about-face on his earlier endorsement of Mr. Obama’s thawing of relations with Cuba.There are enough reasons to suspect that, at best, Mr. Trump does not share the region’s priorities. This is not unprecedented. During the reign of the most recent Republican president, George W. Bush, Latin America’s priorities remained largely unaddressed as the U.S. focused on security and combating terrorism.At worst, the region’s priorities are inimical to Mr. Trump’s. He disdains multilateralism and existing free trade agreements and denies climate change science. The president-elect’s populist, autocratic rhetoric and call for military rearmament are precisely what Latin America has made great strides in rooting out in its own politics.So, Latin America’s concern runs deeper than the potential lack of U.S. engagement on the priorities of many Latin American leaders. The anxiety is that Mr. Trump will not simply recalibrate policy but revert, at least rhetorically, to the dark days of U.S. unilateralism in the hemisphere.For example, Mr. Obama walked a fine line in criticizing the Venezuelan regime without “Americanizing” the crisis. It’s unclear whether Mr. Trump or
his rumoured foreign policy advisers will have the patience or inclination to deal with this situation diplomatically.Ditto for whether he will help in Cuba’s political and economic transition or revive the former hard line, a policy strongly opposed by the rest of the hemisphere. Ditto for whether he will handle adroitly the delicate transition to peace in Colombia.Enter Mr. Trudeau.In less than two years Mr. Trudeau will be, with the exception of Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega, the senior statesman in the hemisphere. His deputy in seniority will be Argentine President Mauricio Macri, an important southern anchor in consolidating a consensus on common priorities.Mr. Trudeau’s path to hemispheric leadership may be shortened sooner than later given Mr. Obama’s lame duck status, and the domestic challenges that preoccupy would-be leaders of greater seniority in the region. If, for example, Mr. Trump executes on his promise to upset NAFTA and recoil from other economic integration efforts, Mr. Macri, Mr. Kuczynski and most of the regional leaders, who champion free trade, will look to Canada for a northern anchor.How Mr. Trudeau’s role evolves depends on his vision for the hemisphere and what happens after Mr. Trump is inaugurated. However it evolves, the Prime Minister will have ample opportunity to exercise his penchant for returning Canada to international prominence in mediation, consensus building and peacemaking.
* Canadian lawyer, president of the Canadian Council for the Americas. (Article first published in The Globe & Mail).