This article was originally published in The Globe and Mail on January 7, 2017.
Five decades ago, at the U.S. presidential retreat of Camp David, an enraged Lyndon Johnson unleashed a tirade on our prime minister, Lester Pearson, for his (mild) public criticism of the U.S. war in Vietnam. Our ambassador feared “a climax of physical violence … The President strode up to [Pearson] and seized him by the lapel of his coat – at the same time raising his other arm to the heavens.”
It didn’t end in blows, but the episode is worth remembering at the dawn of the Trump era. President Donald Trump isn’t likely to try to physically throttle our current PM – especially if he knows anything about Justin Trudeau’s record in the ring. But when it comes to bare-knuckled political brutality, Mr. Trump makes Lyndon Johnson look like Mahatma Gandhi.
This is very bad news for Canada, which, as the current Prime Minister’s father once observed, occupies a position vis-à-vis the United States akin to that of a mouse sleeping next to an elephant.
For Justin Trudeau, with so much at stake for Canada, it will make 2017 the year of living dangerously.
Mr. Trudeau represents everything that Mr. Trump and his supporters detest. He is the toast of American liberal and media elites. With his on-the-sleeve feminism, his celebration of diversity and his aphorisms on inclusion, he is the personification of the “political correctness” that Mr. Trump excoriates. About the only thing that Mr. Trump is likely to grudgingly respect about our Prime Minister is his international celebrity status. Mr. Trump will already be regarding his opposite number with suspicion if not hostility.
So what can Mr. Trudeau do?
To start with, don’t unnecessarily tweak Mr. Trump’s nose. Poking with a stick is never a good strategy. So sanctimonious lectures should be out. What should be in is leading by example. Don’t lecture the Trump administration on women’s rights or diversity – send them delegations led by the likes of Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland or Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan. Show Mr. Trump respect for his office, but show him, above all, who and what we are.
Double down on multilateralism. The U.S. president doesn’t like or trust the United Nations? Well, it’s a cornerstone to our international policy. Put in the same efforts in the many multilateral organizations we belong to, from the Commonwealth to NATO to APEC to la Francophonie.
Take the hard decisions to safeguard both our interests and our sovereignty. Mr. Trump wants to tear up NAFTA. Granting concessions will only increase his appetite. Create a broad coalition to save NAFTA, working with Mexico, supporters in the U.S. Congress (including Republicans) and provincial and state governments.
At the same time, end moves toward a “security perimeter” in North America. To do less would be to place our immigration and foreign policy under the thumb of Trumpism.
Above all, the Prime Minister will need to remember at all times that he is the leader of a sovereign country. As obvious as that sounds, not all Canadians will agree. There is a strong lobby that argues we should do whatever it takes to get along with the U.S. administration, no matter how dangerous and noxious its agenda. These same lobbyists wanted Canada to join the Iraq War in 2003, and they will be at it again. Former prime minister Brian Mulroney is already lauding Mr. Trump as a “very nice guy.”
Such a path of least resistance would be a domestic political catastrophe, creating a bitter backlash among the vast majority of Canadians. It would also – perhaps irreversibly – undermine Canadian sovereignty.
Ultimately, Prime Minister Trudeau will require all the dexterity and discipline so evident in his prodigious – and well-documented – physical feats. Except in this case, what he’ll be juggling will be our economic interests with our values and our national sovereignty.
Challenging? Certainly. But not necessarily mission impossible.
Consider that despite his near-pummeling at Camp David, Lester Pearson negotiated the Canada-U.S. auto pact and accepted tens of thousands of American draft dodgers into Canada – a skillful juggling act, indeed. Sometimes, a wily, determined mouse can run circles around an elephant.