The White House luncheon had ended, and the Canadian and U.S. delegations quickly huddled to compare notes and to decide what to feed waiting reporters. At last, agreement reached, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau turned to his host and said, “Well, Mr. President, are we programmed?” At that, former actor Ronald Reagan briefly pretended he was a shuffling robot, and the two leaders marched out into Washington’s shimmering spring heat to face the cameras.
For all the spontaneous levity of the moment, Trudeau’s visit to Washington last week in fact seemed carefully programmed to please. The issues that still darken Canadian-U.S. relations—acid rain, cruise missile testing, extraterritoriality—were discreetly left behind in Ottawa. Instead, the agenda dealt mainly with subjects on which the two governments are in basic accord: EastWest arms control talks, the dampening effect of high interest rates on economic recovery, the threats posed by massive debt in the Third World and the principal purpose of the trip—the upcoming Williamsburg summit of seven nations (the United States, Britain, West Germany, France, Italy, Japan and Canada) late this month.
Presummit tête-à-têtes have recently become something of a tradition. They provide opportunities to explore potential trouble spots and to reduce the odds of unfortunate surprise. For the most part, Trudeau was encouraged by what he heard. As envisaged by the Reagan administration, the Williamsburg conclave will be a much looser affair than its predecessors. In the past, final communiqués have been thrashed out months ahead of time by teams of “bureaucratic Sherpas.” This year Reagan has insisted on a lessstructured format—a flexible agenda and no prescripted communiqué. Trudeau publicly applauded the president for daring to buck convention, but both sides concede that the freewheeling approach carries its own risks: the discussions could end
without any definitive statements at all.
The prime minister believes, however, that the challenges of Williamsburg are less daunting than those of past summits. The now-stabilized price of crude oil no longer poses a serious problem for the industrialized world. Inflation is also plainly under control. And the U.S. economy, the engine of global recovery, has moved into high gear. Trudeau, in fact, went out of his way to praise Reagan’s “doggedness” in sticking to his oft-criticized economic policies.
Still, the Williamsburg summiteers will not lack for conversation topics. The central question is likely to be how to
sustain the economic recovery now under way. Real interest rates—the difference between actual rates and inflation-remain near record highs. Under these conditions industry will defer the capital expansions needed to reduce unemployment. Real interest rates, Trudeau and Reagan agreed, should ideally fall from current levels (about six per cent) to three per cent. But the basic dilemma is how to bring about the reduction without reviving inflationary expectations.
While enjoying a walk in the Rose Garden, Trudeau and Reagan observed that a weak economic recovery would make protectionist reflexes difficult to resist. The PM told the president that he viewed recent federal rulings on cement imports and trucking as disturbing victories for protectionist-minded congressmen. Trudeau had other ammunition about various U.S. state and local ordinances that likewise threatened
free trade principles. He gathered the evidence from 17 Canadian business executives who flew to Washington to lunch with him the day before his meeting with Reagan. Curiously, the group consisted almost entirely of Liberal party members or contributors, among them four former officials of the Prime Minister’s Office. Reagan was sympathetic to Canada’s worries and during his farewell remarks on the South Lawn stressed ‘’the importance of resisting protectionist pressures.”
After the lunch Trudeau arrived at the White House five minutes early for a meeting with Vice-President George Bush, who rushed in from another appointment proclaiming, in mock horror, “My God, I’m late, I’m late.” The vicepresident had specifically asked for the meeting, as he had for the session with External Affairs Minister Allan MacEachen last month. Indeed, the PMO now regards Bush as an invaluable contact within the administration, one that may pay future dividends if Reagan decides not to seek re-election and Bush wins the Republican nomination.
The vice-president was especially curious about Canadian opposition to testing the cruise missile. Trudeau referred to recent nationwide demonstrations that brought 80,000 people into the streets against the weapon and said that it remained a heated political issue. However, Trudeau told Bush and Reagan that Washington’s new interim proposal for reducing theatre nuclear forces in Europe was a constructive step and would signify to Canadians that the United States was earnest about arms control. He also pressed for some signs that the now-recessed Geneva talks would produce an early agreement: Bush could offer no more than his hope that they would.
Overall, Trudeau was an impeccably mannered guest and even on subjects like U.S. policy in Central America, where clear differences of outlook exist, he contented himself with a mild reiteration that nations should be allowed to choose their form of government but not to export it to neighbors. The statement neatly evaded the central issues in Central America, and the administration duly noted what the Canadians decided not to say.
The entire Trudeau mission, in sum, was determinedly upbeat, including the official dinner. The prime minister dined on quail with Canadian actress Margot Kidder under a tent on the gracious grounds of the ambassador’s residence. Later the guests listened to former congressman James Symington entertain the crowd with songs from the 1920s and 1930s. Trudeau stayed past midnight—a rare event. In diplomacy there is a season for everything. This clearly was the occasion for charm. <£>
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.