Trudeau’s international travel seems to be beset with problems

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Foreign trips usually build a politician up. When they don’t, the Prime Minister’s Office needs to know why. Justin Trudeau’s international planners should hit the reset button. 

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on November 21, 2022.

OTTAWA—Foreign travel is usually an opportunity for political leaders to escape the daily partisan political attacks that dog them.

On the international scene, hobnobbing with other leaders to entertain issues of global importance usually lifts a leader’s spirits and poll numbers. 

A lengthy international tour can also be the sign of a long goodbye. 

If a leader knows they won’t be running again, the automatic post-travel criticism of budget items and hotel room costs doesn’t really matter. In the case of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he has already told his caucus that he has no intention of leaving.

So recent international travel should have been an opportunity to improve his domestic standing in the polls.

Instead, it seems the more he travels, the more negative media is generated.

Just examine the latest political kerfuffle involving a staged, public prime ministerial rebuke by Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Canadian diplomats and foreign policy experts were quick to parse the dressing-down in the margins of the G-20 Bali meeting. They saw it as a sign of China’s disregard for Canada’s role on the world scene. 

It was testing ground for the Chinese leader. He has already managed to assume complete control in his own country. There is no doubt he possesses a certain authoritarian streak.

Will that streak be extended to Chinese international relations?

A hit on Canada is a quick place to start. Former Canadian diplomat Charles Burton told the CBC that the Chinese leader would never have spoken to American president Joe Biden in that way.

He characterized the Chinese comments as “dismissive and threatening.”

Burton may think that the Chinese president would never treat Biden like that.  

But look at the recent public embarrassment reserved for his immediate predecessor former Chinese president Hu Jintao at the closing ceremony of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China last month.

Chinese news reports said the former president was helped from his seat for health reasons.

But video footage, and subsequent lip reading published in a Japanese newspaper, provided a different version of events. 

Allegedly the former president was tussling over a red folder of documents which included the names of the top party officials. The former leader’s chief protégé was not among them. 

Instead, Xi Jinping replaced Hu supporters with his own loyalists.

When Hu was escorted from the meeting, not a single one of the 37 people he passed even acknowledged him.

If that kind of public repudiation can be delivered openly at a party meeting, why would anyone expect something different in the international context?

As China experiences increased international economic power and influence, their leader will be emboldened.

Chinese diplomats have subsequently issued a statement denying the Trudeau dressing-down. But the video footage is as clear there as it was at the party’s five-year gathering. 

Just as one picture is worth a thousand words, one film clip is worth a dozen verbal denials. 

While Canadian coverage of Trudeau’s international visit is focused on the dressing down, the bigger story is the increased foreign influence that China is experiencing. 

But Trudeau’s foreign travel seems to be beset with problems.

The most famous foray that still dogs him is the trip to India in 2018, where he and his family were photographed in multiple examples of unique Indian vestments. 

Many Canadians might roll their eyes when they see the photos, but for millions of Indo-Canadians, the clothing shows respect for their culture. 

The bottom line is that his foreign trip planners should have limited the multiple photo opportunities in different garb on the India trip.

His recent voyage to the United Kingdom was beset with problems that started in a piano bar where famous Quebec crooner Gregory Charles led a prime ministerial group in singing Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. 

Trudeau was once again caught on camera, joining in the levity, which made embarrassing fodder for the British tabloids on the eve of Queen Elizabeth’s national funeral. 

Trudeau should have understood that hanging in a hotel bar on the eve of the burial of the world’s most famous monarch is a political non-starter. 

As a politician, the buck stops with him. 

But his travel organizers must bear some responsibility for putting him in these embarrassing situations. If anything, a private gathering with a piano in his suite would have prevented the problem. 

Foreign trips usually build a politician up. When they don’t, the Prime Minister’s Office needs to know why.

Trudeau’s international planners should hit the reset button. 

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.