They were three schoolyard chums — the U.K.’s Boris Johnson, France’s Emmanuel Macron and Canada’s Justin Trudeau — snickering about the schoolyard bully — America’s Donald Trump — confident that none of their yuk-yukking and nudge-nudging would ever make it out of their corner of the playground.
And then it did. And only one of those chums got caught: Trudeau.
Wait, There’s More: Trump, Trudeau, and the tension inside NATO
But the bully’s response was surprisingly charitable. He only called Trudeau “two-faced” before shrugging Trudeau off as “a very nice guy” who was hurt after Trump correctly called him and Canada out for being lightweights when it comes to defence spending.
And as both leaders jetted back to their respective national capitals Wednesday, the chattering classes in Washington and Ottawa got down to figuring out how this would affect a Canada-U.S. relationship that was already a little more than slightly chilled.
“This is not good for their personal relationship, but the machinery of government will continue to handle most issues on the bilateral agenda for now, so there will not be an explicit price for Canada to pay now. But as we have seen with Mitt Romney and others, Trump has a long memory for slights and I expect there will be consequences down the line.”
Indeed, even though the Trudeau-Trump relationship might remain unchanged — for now — it may make things more difficult for those working on Canada’s behalf in Washington. On social media and the cable news networks, Republicans reminded anyone who would listen that, when he’s travelling outside the United States, Trump represents all America and that America’s allies at least ought to have a little respect for the office. That was a point made on Twitter by a Democratic representative — who is no fan of Trump — on Twitter.
In any event, to the extent that one believes that Trump is a strategic thinker when it comes to politics — and that’s obviously a highly debatable point — Trump has bigger problems than catty comments by Trudeau, Macron or Johnson.
For example, Trump needs to get the new NAFTA through Congress, where it’s known as the United States-Canada-Mexico agreement. As he enters his re-election year, Trump needs a foreign policy win.
“Trump needs NAFTA more than anyone else does,” said Kim Richard Nossal, a professor of political studies at Queen’s University and a longtime student of Canada-U.S. relations. “Trump’s got nothing to show for his three years. Everything he’s touched in global affairs has turned to dust.”
If Trudeau can push the USMCA over the finish line, Trump may more quickly forget the NATO snickers.
Colin Robertson, a veteran Canadian diplomat who is now a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, noted that, so far as the NATO summit was concerned, Trudeau’s “unforced error” is not the most significant issue. Trump, Robertson said, has a problem with the Pentagon. His generals are suspicious and annoyed at Trump for the way he has destabilized the NATO alliance. Trump needs to patch that relationship up and he got a start in London by seeming to be a defender of the kind of NATO-bashing that Macron engaged in.
And Robertson agrees with Sands that Trump’s ‘two-faced’ comment is not a big deal, as he has said worse about Trudeau in the past.
“I think this will pass.”
But Trudeau has given Canadian voters yet another reason to think that he is not a serious player on the international stage.
Indeed, during the just-concluded election campaign, it was easy to find Liberal partisans at Trudeau rallies who, though they certainly planned to vote for him again, thought his conduct on the foreign affairs file in his first mandate was disappointing, mostly because of that ill-fated trip to India.
But most polls over the last few years have, by and large, shown that Canadians generally approved of the tone and approach that Trudeau took when dealing with the combustible American president. Trudeau was respectful but not deferential; firm but not aggressive. His approach yielded a new NAFTA that could have been much worse and ensured that the illegal and damaging steel and aluminum tariffs levied on Canadian firms last for as short a period as possible.
Trudeau’s handling of his Washington neighbour — a neighbour polls have shown that very few Canadians like — may have helped Trudeau in the election.
And though it may be two or three years before voters are asked to render their second verdict on Trudeau’s time as prime minister, they, like Trump, may have long memories for slights.