MANILA (Reuters) - New Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau started his first international trip with a stumble before recovering to impress world leaders keen to bask in the success of his big election win last month.
The 43-year-old with film-star looks was the center of attention at a Group of 20 summit in Turkey and a meeting of Asia-Pacific leaders in Manila, where he survived a mobbing by enthusiastic onlookers.
While he was in Turkey, Trudeau was criticized in Canada for what was considered a muted response to the deadly Paris attacks and for posing for selfies requested by businessmen at the summit.
Indeed, Trudeau cannot survive on smiles and pleasant words alone, warns Fen Hampson of the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ontario.
“His likeability ratings are off the charts and he is getting good reviews from foreign leaders, but it will only take him so far unless Canada is also seen to be willing to do some of the heavy lifting,” he said.
For example, U.S. President Barack Obama wants Trudeau to commit long-term to the U.S.-led military mission against Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq, while NATO members are unhappy Ottawa is not spending enough money on defense.
Trudeau’s center-left Liberals won power last month, promising Canada would play a bigger global role than it had done under the inward-looking Conservatives of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Obama had little in common with the right-leaning Harper and was clearly delighted to talk to Trudeau on Thursday in Manila.
“We’ve seen the incredible excitement that Justin generated during his campaign in Canada. We’re confident that he’s going to be able to provide a great boost of energy and reform to the Canadian political landscape,” Obama said.
Obama invited Trudeau down to the White House and the two men talked about their respective wives’ vegetable gardens - a warm touch Harper could never have managed.
“There doesn’t have to be a lot of substance at this stage. He just has to get through it and create good impressions along the way,” said Toronto-based Ipsos pollster John Wright.
Fellow leaders at both summits were intrigued by how Trudeau had won power with talk of “sunny ways” and respect, rather than by bashing his opponents.
“I believe your success in the incredible electoral campaign is a great model for a lot of people around the world,” Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi told Trudeau in Turkey.
“When you won, a lot of people thought it was a moment of change, not only for Canada,” he said.
Trudeau is also helped by the fact that many leaders still remember how active his father, former Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, was on the world stage.
This is particularly true in Asia, home to the fast-developing markets Trudeau wants Canadian firms to exploit in order to help revive a slumbering domestic economy.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye said Pierre Trudeau had been “integral to raising Canada’s international stature,” while Chinese leader Xi Jinping praised Trudeau’s father, the former prime minister, for establishing diplomatic ties with Beijing.
The warm words contrasted with the start of the trip, when Trudeau left for Turkey on the same night as 129 people died in multiple attacks in Paris.
The next day, as Obama and other G20 leaders discussed the crisis, Trudeau was posing for selfies with business executives and then stuck to his talking points about climate change and had to be prompted by reporters to talk about Paris.
Trudeau’s foreign policy advisor tweeted a link to a story about how the prime minister was mobbed for selfies, reinforcing criticism in Canadian media about the prime minister being tone-deaf.
“The style is working. On substance, he’s navigating - one has the sense his footing is perhaps less sure,” said University of Ottawa professor David Dyment.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Michael Perry and Bernadette Baum