By Christopher Sands, June 12, 2018
In French Existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre’s book No Exit the philosopher’s punchline is, “Hell is other people.” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is not as well read in philosophy as his father was, but after the G7 Summit in Charlevoix, Que., this weekend, he can almost certainly relate.
US President Donald Trump came to Quebec spoiling for a fight. The previous week, he announced that the temporary exemptions from punitive steel and aluminum tariffs that he had given to Canada, the countries of the European Union, Japan and Mexico would not be renewed. Trump had also launched a process to impose a 25 per cent tariff on all vehicles imported into the United States.
Meanwhile, the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has not been going well. Trump refused a call from Trudeau unless Trudeau first agreed to the US demand for a five-year sunset clause in a new NAFTA agreement. Had Trudeau agreed, that might have been the most expensive call in Canadian history.
Like an Agatha Christie murder mystery, all of the G7 leaders gathering in Charlevoix had a motive to confront Trump. Yet Trump’s volcanic temper was directed at one leader in particular: Trudeau.
Trump’s anger with Trudeau has been building for some time. In February, Trump complained that Canada was “very smooth” on trade. This wasn’t a compliment; Trump was conveying his frustration that Members of Congress and state governors were quoting Canadian arguments and trade data back to him. Trump prides himself on his ability to read the public mood. Canada’s unprecedented, evidence-based outreach to US leaders and businesses was showing Canada could do the same.
Then last month, Trump vented that Canada was “very spoiled” and “very difficult” on trade. It was the kind of thing you’d say about a cranky child, not a fellow world leader.
Trump vented that Canada was “very spoiled” and “very difficult” on trade. It was the kind of thing you’d say about a cranky child, not a fellow world leader.
Then last week, Trudeau appeared on NBC’s Sunday public affairs program Meet the Press with Chuck Todd, a longtime critic of Trump’s. On the program, Trudeau called Trump’s use of section 232 of the US Trade Act of 1962 to impose steel, aluminum and even automotive tariffs on Canada under the justification that they were necessary for US national security, “insulting and unacceptable.”
If Trump didn’t appreciate this push back from Trudeau on a domestic US broadcast popular with establishment Republicans and Democrats, he has only himself to blame. And not just because of his most recent tariff threats.
No one expected a repeat of the “bromance” Trudeau has with former US President Barack Obama after Trump was elected as Obama’s successor. Trudeau and his team made a conscious decision to impose message discipline on the Liberal caucus and maintain a firm but friendly approach to the United States. Personal relationships were cultivated within the Trump White House, with Trudeau himself working on a personal rapport with the president.
After the first 500 days of what the White House is promoting as “American Greatness,” what has Trudeau got to show for his persistent outreach to Trump? Canadians are paying softwood tariffs, paying the price of NAFTA uncertainty with no end in sight, and now being threatened with even more tariffs. This explains why Trudeau and his government have been shifting their approach to the Trump administration, pushing back against Trump’s accusations and criticisms of Canada.
Trump has clearly noticed the change in tone from Canada and reacted with hostility. But for once Trump’s sense of timing may be off: it may now be too late for escalating threats to force Trudeau to retreat, or to answer Trump’s bluster with Canadian niceness.
Doug Ford is now positioned to become the Conservative’s attack dog on Trudeau policies on a range of economic issues.
The reason it may be too late is the election of Doug Ford as Ontario’s new premier. The federal Conservatives, led by Andrew Scheer, are the most probable alternative the Trudeau and the Liberals for voters in the federal election scheduled for October 2019. Scheer is the epitome of Canadian niceness, and federal Conservative MPs have refrained from tough attacks on Trudeau over NAFTA and foreign policy toward the United States.
Doug Ford is now positioned to become the Conservative’s attack dog on Trudeau policies on a range of economic issues, from NAFTA renegotiation to the carbon tax. And as leader of Canada’s largest province, his criticisms will reverberate across the country and, should he choose to challenge Trudeau for risking the future of the Canadian auto industry in his fight with Trump, the critique will hurt.
Trudeau can no longer back down to Trump’s bullying, even if he was inclined to do so. As a result, Trump’s ill-timed personalization of trade disputes with Canada and his staffers personal name calling in recent days will not work, if they ever might have.
This is the reason that Canada-US relations are in the worst shape in my lifetime. Trump and Trudeau are locked in a bitter conflict and neither side is showing much flexibility. Instead they seem ready to give one another Hell.
Christopher Sands is senior research professor and director of the Center for Canadian Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC and a member of the Research Advisory Board of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. Follow him on Twitter: @sandsathopkins.