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.
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.
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.
John Delacourt, Vice President of Ensight Canada, is a former director of communications for the Liberal Research Bureau.