Editor’s Note: Andrew Cohen is an author and journalist who writes a nationally syndicated column for the Ottawa Citizen. His latest book is “Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours that Made History” (Signal/Random House). He is a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
In one bizarre, unguarded moment at a private fundraiser in Missouri, Donald Trump showed why months of trade negotiations between Canada, Mexico and the United States have been fitful, frustrating, and fruitless.
In an earlier conversation with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the President made up facts about the balance of trade with Canada – and later boasted about it. On Wednesday, he told donors that he had claimed, falsely, that the United States has a trade deficit with Canada. On Thursday, he repeated the canard.
In fact, when the Washington Post published a transcript of the conversation, Trump tweeted “we do have a Trade Deficit with Canada, as we do with almost all countries (some of them massive). P.M. Justin Trudeau … doesn’t like saying that Canada has a Surplus vs. the U.S. (negotiating), but they do … they almost all do … and that’s how I know!”
And that’s how I know.
To Canada, Trump’s braggadocio, ignorance and self-confidence are no surprise. After a year of dealing with Trump – in meetings at the White House, over the telephone, and across the table from US negotiators re-opening NAFTA – Trudeau is used to Trump’s hyperbole and inconsistency and even this, the most brazen of his falsehoods.
(The Department of Commerce says the United States had a $2.77 billion surplus in 2017, including timber and energy. In 2016, the United States Trade Representative said the US had a surplus of $12.5 billion, not a deficit.)
Canada is a progressive place that is committed to free trade, universal health care, open immigration, international institutions and the international response to climate change. Under President Barack Obama, it saw an America that believed in many of those things, too. Now it doesn’t.
Like other countries, Canada has had to come to terms with a world in which the US is an unreliable ally on the environment, a skeptic of the United Nations and NATO, an aggrieved trading partner and a faithless friend. Geography, history, prosperity, necessity – the enduring elements of a relationship of 200 years – no longer mean much.
The longest un-militarized border in the world is now seen with suspicion in Washington, which worries that terrorists will come through it. A trading relationship of $1.7 billion a day is now seen as a threat to America, not a benefit.
So, when Trump distorts the truth, as he did Wednesday and Thursday, Trudeau sighs and shrugs. It is all he can do. Canada’s relationship with the United States remains his top international priority, and now more than ever as Canada struggles to save NAFTA, which is far more important to Canada than it is to the US.
As the junior partner, Canada turns the other cheek. It has absorbed slight after slight: demands at the NAFTA talks that the US knows a self-respecting country cannot meet, such as eliminating the dispute settlement mechanism, creating a sunset clause and re-writing rules of origin; duties on Canadian jets (later reversed); threats of tariffs on steel and aluminum imports (pending the outcome of the NAFTA talks).
With every move, differences between the two countries sharpen and tensions rise. No wonder Trump – unlike Obama, who was beloved here – is so unpopular in Canada that he dare not visit Ottawa, traditionally a new President’s first foreign trip.
For Trudeau, whom Trump calls “a nice, good-looking guy,” managing the President is a daily challenge.
To do this, Canada has assembled a seasoned team of NAFTA negotiators; created a war room in Ottawa; and made saving NAFTA a bipartisan cause, enlisting the help of the opposition Conservatives and former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney.
Most of all, Trudeau has imposed an iron discipline on the government, which means forbidding cabinet ministers or any senior officials from responding to Trump’s taunts or provocative tweets. So, when Trump made his comments yesterday, the prime minister was silent, on vacation. The minister of foreign affairs sent out her press secretary, who made an innocuous statement.
Canada knows better. It may not get its way with a mercurial, dissembling President, but it is firm, clear and unfazed, its eyes on the prize.