Read­ing Vic­to­ries in Relief: The Un­spo­ken Trump-Trudeau Ac­cord

Policy - - In This Is­sue - John Dela­court

In his ad­dress to Amer­i­can gover­nors in July, Justin Trudeau up­dated his fa­ther’s fa­mous quip that sharing a bor­der with their coun­try was like sleep­ing next to an ele­phant by de­scrib­ing Canada, in our bi­lat­eral metaphor, as not a mouse but a moose,“strong and peace­able but still mas­sively out­weighed.” The fa­mously emo­tion­ally in­tel­li­gent Lib­eral leader’s in­ter­ac­tions with his no­to­ri­ously com­bustible coun­ter­part have, so far, been con­ducted on that ba­sis. Lib­eral strate­gist John Dela­court writes that Canada has ben­e­fited from the ap­proach.

It was, for many who have fol­lowed the tra­jec­tory and tra­vails of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump over the last two years, a mo­ment that had all the po­ten­tial of a rad­i­cal and trou­bling turn in Canada-U.S. re­la­tions. On June 21, 2017, a Mon­treal man, Amor M. Ftouhi, en­tered the Bishop In­ter­na­tional Air­port in Flint, Michi­gan and at­tacked Lt. Jeff Neville, an air­port se­cu­rity of­fi­cer, with a knife. Ftouhi yelled “Al­lahu ak­bar,” while stab­bing the of­fi­cer

in the neck and fur­ther ex­claimed (para­phrased) “You have killed peo­ple in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and we are all go­ing to die.”

It wouldn’t have taken more than a cou­ple of evenings’ worth of Trump’s tweets to an­tic­i­pate how this could have played out on so­cial me­dia. What was worse, this in­ci­dent oc­curred when the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment was in­vest­ing a great deal of po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal in bol­ster­ing our trade re­la­tions in key con­stituen­cies out­side of Wash­ing­ton. With just one tweet, the pres­i­dent could have de­mo­nized Canada as a haven for ter­ror­ists, led by a left­wing gov­ern­ment that would pay for its le­niency and in­ac­tion with sanc­tions on the flow of goods and cit­i­zens across our shared bor­der. Not only could the NAFTA rene­go­ti­a­tions have been at risk; any fu­ture bi­lat­er­als could have been marked by a shift in tone and a di­min­ish­ment of bar­gain­ing room.

Trudeau, his Cab­i­net and his se­nior ad­vis­ers have all re­sisted speak­ing ill of the pres­i­dent on so­cial me­dia. This is not a small thing with the pres­i­dent or his of­fice and you can be as­sured it has been noted.

Hours later, there was still nary a tweet from Trump. Those hours stretched to days. An in­ci­dent that of­fered an ideal op­por­tu­nity for the pres­i­dent to fire up his base and bol­ster a case for some of his most in­cen­di­ary rhetoric on Is­lamism and pub­lic safety dis­solved amid the worka­day news cy­cle of mi­cro-crises and Twit­ter flame wars. What could be said at all about Ftouhi was said clearly in Cana­dian news re­ports; what could not be talked about in Wash­ing­ton was passed over in si­lence.

But why was there re­straint on Trump’s Twit­ter feed, of all places? Much has been made of Trump’s im­pul­sive na­ture, his rants that en­rage pro­gres­sives and pun­dits alike (Trump’s point is of­ten that they are too alike). A shift in tone from a tweet at 4 a.m. could have eas­ily desta­bi­lized Canada-U.S. re­la­tions and di­min­ished the cur­rency For­eign Af­fairs Min­is­ter Chrys­tia Free­land, De­fence Min­is­ter Har­jit Sa­j­jan and Trans­port Min­is­ter Marc Garneau, chair of the Canada-U.S. cab­i­net com­mit­tee, could sum­mon in their meet­ings with their in­ter­locu­tors in the U.S. Pres­i­dent Trump might be less im­pul­sive than we think.

We averted this po­ten­tial cri­sis be­cause Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau has taken Trump’s per­spec­tive se­ri­ously from the very be­gin­ning. This is not the same thing as agree­ment— ei­ther tacit or ex­plicit.

The best illustration of this dy­namic re­cently emerged in one of Trump’s speeches to a par­ti­san crowd in Florida. He said: “I like the prime min­is­ter very much. Prime Min­is­ter Trudeau. Nice guy. Good guy. No, I like him. But we had a meet­ing … He said, ‘No, no, you have a trade sur­plus.’ I said, ‘No we don’t.’ He said, ‘No, no you have a trade sur­plus … I told my peo­ple – in front of a lot of peo­ple – I said, ‘Go out and check.’” Trump then af­firmed he was even­tu­ally proven right – a con­clu­sion Canada’s Am­bas­sador to the U.S. David MacNaughton felt obliged to cor­rect on Twit­ter: “U.S. goods and ser­vices trade sur­plus with Canada was $12.5 bil­lion in 2016.”

The neu­tral, mat­ter of fact tone of MacNaughton’s re­sponse is telling. Trudeau, his Cab­i­net and his se­nior ad­vis­ers have all re­sisted speak­ing ill of the pres­i­dent on so­cial me­dia. This is not a small thing with the pres­i­dent or his of­fice and you can be as­sured it has been noted. Dif­fer­ences are aired in con­ver­sa­tion but they are not then re­duced to a se­ries of 140-char­ac­ter re­ports—or re­torts.

It might drive many pro­gres­sives and jour­nal­ists to dis­trac­tion that more isn’t done to counter Trump from his cho­sen vir­tual bully pul­pit, but the Flint in­ci­dent is in­dica­tive of how to read and un­der­stand what suc­cess means in Canada-U.S. re­la­tions dur­ing this pres­i­dency. As it is with suc­cess in the gov­ern­ment’s is­sues man­age­ment or its pub­lic safety and se­cu­rity files, it’s more about the crises that are averted rather than a tally of vic­to­ries from a clash of ad­ver­saries.

The threats to our econ­omy have been sig­nif­i­cant. The NAFTA ne­go­ti­a­tions have not, as of yet, dis­solved ac­ri­mo­niously. The bor­der tax Re­pub­li­can lead­ers in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives pushed for in 2017, pro­posed to raise rev­enues to help pay for tax cuts, did not move for­ward as planned. The risk to our steel in­dus­try of a tar­iff that would es­sen­tially shut us out of the U.S. mar­ket still ex­ists, but noth­ing will oc­cur on this front un­til the Sec­tion 232 in­ves­ti­ga­tion into steel im­ports is com­plete and it has yet to move to re­port stage.

All of th­ese un­for­tu­nate de­vel­op­ments could still oc­cur be­fore the end of Trudeau’s first man­date. Any­one fol­low­ing the NAFTA ne­go­ti­a­tions closely would wa­ger the agree­ment may be the first ca­su­alty in a trad­ing re­la­tion­ship that re­mains, as so much within the or­bit of Trump’s mus­ings, veer­ing per­ilously close to calamity. And yet, as the Flint in­ci­dent would af­firm, there is strong rea­son to believe our good for­tune is more than pro­vi­sional.

Can this good for­tune go be­yond bi­lat­eral re­la­tions? Prob­a­bly not. Trudeau may not be, as some might sug­gest, a Trump whis­perer for his in­ter­locu­tors at the G20. His clos­est ad­vis­ers both ac­knowl­edge how such a per­cep­tion might res­onate and gently dis­miss it. Yes, it is true that Trudeau has been ap­proached in the set­ting of a mul­ti­lat­eral meet­ing and asked about “Don­ald” as if he had

some bet­ter in­sight into the mind of Trump, but no, there is no more sub­stan­tial me­di­at­ing role the prime min­is­ter has taken on.

What should mat­ter more to Cana­di­ans, es­pe­cially those whose jobs might be at risk with NAFTA, is that as of De­cem­ber 2017, the pres­i­dent and the PM have spo­ken on the phone 17 times since Trump’s elec­tion. This is more than any other leader that Trump has en­gaged with in his term of of­fice. Most im­por­tant, in th­ese con­ver­sa­tions Trump has not only ac­knowl­edged the va­lid­ity of the Prime Min­is­ter’s per­spec­tive but he has lis­tened.

The re­sult of the Trudeau gov­ern­ment’s ap­proach re­quires a read of CanadaU.S. re­la­tions in re­lief rather than a fo­cus on the fore­ground. We are now more than a year into Trump’s man­date and there has been no seis­mic shift in trade re­la­tions that has caused job losses or any slow­ing of eco­nomic growth on this side of the bor­der.

This speaks of a work­ing rap­port that tran­scends their ide­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences. Trump sees in Trudeau an un­der­dog can­di­date who came from be­hind, cap­tured the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion and over­turned the ex­ist­ing or­der on his charisma and his emo­tional in­tel­li­gence; he read the mood of the coun­try and em­bod­ied it. The pres­i­dent be­lieves they have this story in com­mon; the ad­vi­sors around him and ap­par­ently the GOP it­self are not about to dis­abuse Trump of this no­tion. The re­sult of the Trudeau gov­ern­ment’s ap­proach re­quires a read of Canada-U.S. re­la­tions in re­lief rather than a fo­cus on the fore­ground. We are now more than a year into Trump’s man­date and there has been no seis­mic shift in trade re­la­tions that has caused job losses or any slow­ing of eco­nomic growth on this side of the bor­der.

The ques­tion re­mains though: does this make Canada any less vul­ner­a­ble to an un­ex­pected de­ci­sion by Trump and his in­ner cir­cle that could have huge con­se­quences for our econ­omy? If you believe that re­la­tion­ships mat­ter, even within the high­est executive of­fice, you will find rea­son to be op­ti­mistic. We have been crit­i­cal but our crit­i­cism has not, from the Pres­i­dent’s per­spec­tive, threat­ened to punc­ture the news fil­ter bub­bles of his base. The Trudeau gov­ern­ment has been re­spect­ful of Trump’s rap­port with his con­stituency and he has been re­spect­ful of Trudeau’s in turn.

As with so much about Trump’s time in of­fice, this might mat­ter un­til it doesn’t any­more. To im­pose a ra­tio­nal con­struct on this em­bat­tled pres­i­dency may prove to be wish­ful thinking. Yet, as it was with the Flint in­ci­dent, each cri­sis averted is an un­her­alded but sub­stan­tial achieve­ment.

Adam Scotti photo

Prime Min­is­ter Trudeau meets with Pres­i­dent Trump in the Oval Of­fice, along with Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence, Cana­dian Am­bas­sador David MacNaughton, and For­eign Af­fairs Min­is­ter Chyrs­tia Free­land, on October 11, 2017.

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