Canadians might roll their eyes at Donald Trump. But he could be just the man Ottawa needs.
- By Michael PetrouMichael Petrou is a journalist, historian and non-resident fellow at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies. His latest book, Is This Your First War? Travels Through the Post-9/11 Islamic World, won the Ottawa Book Award.
When the final U.S. election results rolled in early in the morning of Nov. 9, many Canadians were left worrying about what President-elect Donald Trump could mean for the future of their country — perhaps none more than Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The two leaders could not be more different. Trump, known for his mean-spirited tweets, misogynistic comments, and skepticism of climate change, has grabbed global headlines with his collection of anti-immigrant positions like building a wall on the Mexican border, temporarily banning Muslims from entering the United States, and deporting millions of immigrants who live illegally in the country. In stark contrast, Trudeau, a self-proclaimed feminist who is famous for shirtless photographs, celebrates Canada’s ethnic diversity at every turn, including personally welcoming some of the 30,000 Syrian refugees his country has accepted since late 2015.
And beyond the massive divergence in worldview and personality between the two North American leaders, a Trump presidency is likely to undermine much of Trudeau’s own platform at home. Trump has trashed free trade and vowed to tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) unless Canada and Mexico agree to renegotiate the pact. He has likewise promised to back out of the Paris climate agreement — a deal that Trudeau has firmly backed. Relations between Ottawa and Washington could also further strain over defense, where Canada has long failed to live up to the 2 percent of GDP spending obligations under NATO. For a country like Canada that has long depended on the political and economic stability of its southern neighbor for its own prosperity, a Trump presidency could be very bad news.
But all is not lost for Canada. The U.S. president-elect is sure to sow his fair share of chaos around the world, and it’s unlikely that Trudeau and Trump will see eye to eye on most issues. But if Ottawa can show flexibility and ingenuity on the fly, Trudeau will be able to find some major silver linings from Trump’s shake-ups that could ultimately benefit America’s neighbor to the north.
Despite centuries of strong relations between Ottawa and Washington, clashes over personality, political ideology, and governing priorities between president and prime minister have been surprisingly common. And yet the two countries have always found ways to work together. The United States is Canada’s largest trading partner, and Canada jostles with China for that status in America, with nearly $2 billion in daily bilateral trade between the two neighbors. Meanwhile, Ottawa and Washington’s cooperation on a host of issues from aerospace defense to border management has made their partnership one of the strongest in the world. The strength of these ties was on display shortly after Trump’s victory. Although presumably privately disappointed with the result, Trudeau made the customary congratulatory call to the president-elect and invited Trump to visit Canada “at his earliest opportunity.” No Canadian prime minister, not even one with the star power of Trudeau, can afford to turn his back on a U.S. president.
Looking ahead, the most serious area of contention between Trudeau and Trump is trade. Some $31 billion in imports and exports cross the U.S.-Canada border every month. The Ambassador Bridge, linking the cities of Detroit in Michigan and Windsor in Ontario, carries more goods in any given year than America’s total annual trade with the United Kingdom. But the president-elect is no fan of NAFTA and stumped on improving or scraping the trade deal, which he said came at the expense of American workers. Trudeau has said he is open to renegotiating NAFTA. Although Canada’s opposition parties have criticized him for that, Trudeau is not without leverage of his own in future dealings with Trump. According to Canada’s finance minister, Bill Morneau, the jobs of some 9 million Americans depend on trade with Canada, and Canada is the No. 1 trading partner for 35 U.S. states.
If Trump does scrap NAFTA, which came into effect in 1994, Canada could have a safety net. Ottawa and Washington ratified their own bilateral free trade deal in 1989, which may come back into force if NAFTA is torn up. The vast majority of Canada’s trade within North America is with the United States, not Mexico. And a thicker U.S.-Mexico border — complete with a wall — may divert more trade north. This could be good news for Canada’s shrinking auto industry, which is losing ground to Mexico on exporting cars to the United States. Mexico’s automobile production has doubled in a decade, and it now builds more cars than Canada.
But like many U.S. allies that are now apprehensive about Trump, Ottawa will have to hedge the United States. Canada signed a major free trade deal with the European Union in October that will eliminate most tariffs on goods. The deal appeared on the brink of collapse in its final moments, which prompted some anguish in Canada precisely because it would have left Ottawa with fewer alternatives to the United States. On the sidelines of the recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Peru, Trudeau continued trade talks with Pacific Rim countries that signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, like Japan, and that are now looking for economic contingencies. Ottawa has also promoted increased trade with China and India as a means to protect Canada from the risks of being overly dependent on exports to its southern neighbor.
This thinking isn’t new. Trudeau’s predecessor, Stephen Harper, championed a pipeline to take Alberta oil to Canada’s Pacific coast for export to Asia in order to diversify the country’s energy markets. And in 1961, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker started selling large quantities of Canadian wheat to China, over Washington’s objections, due in part to frustration with the United States’ own subsidized wheat sales. A protectionist President Trump may well push Canada into new markets that decades from now will prove to be lucrative for Ottawa.
Trump’s scorn for combating climate change, which he called a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, presents yet another obstacle for Trudeau. Fighting climate change was a major platform in Trudeau’s election campaign, and it has featured heavily in his rhetoric since. Canada sent more than 300 delegates to the 2015 U.N. climate change conference in Paris, more than double the size of the American delegation. Moreover, Trudeau announced in October that Canadian provinces have until 2018 to put a minimum price on carbon emissions. Several provinces have already done so or will have programs up and running by January 2017.
But although Trump’s anti-climate change agenda may be harmful to the environment and undercut Trudeau’s global advocacy to curtail carbon emissions, it could actually benefit the Canadian economy. On the campaign trail, Trump promised to revive the Keystone XL pipeline, which would deliver crude oil from the Alberta oil sands to Nebraska. Obama scuttled the project in 2015 after years of stalling that eventually soured relations with Harper, and despite Trudeau’s vocal environmentalism, he and his Liberal Party are supporters of the pipeline. Moreover, the prospect of a new market comes as Canada is in search of an economic boost. Slumping oil prices have rolled back the country’s once-thriving oil patch. The oil-rich province of Alberta is stuck in recession, with the Conference Board of Canada, a nonprofit research center, estimating that business investment in the oil and gas sector fell by the equivalent of $13 billion in 2015.
Finally, it’s likely that a Trump presidency will burnish Trudeau’s image at home and around the world. Canada’s prime minister has already spent his first year in office painting himself as a defender of liberal values and globalization — elevating Canada’s profile on the international stage in the process. The comparison with Trump will only highlight Trudeau’s liberalism and further his claim to the mantle of the world’s standard-bearer on pluralism and inclusivity. And Canada, which competes with the United States for high-skilled immigrants to keep its population growing and its workforce stocked, may also begin to appear as a more attractive destination. Such a shift would be a long-term gain for Canada.
Regardless of what happens between Trudeau and Trump, the key will be to keep their personal disagreements from spilling over. At a Camp David summit in 1965, then-President Lyndon B. Johnson famously grabbed Prime Minister Lester Pearson by the lapels and shook him over comments Pearson had made about U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. Trudeau’s father, Pierre, didn’t like his American counterpart, Richard Nixon, and the feeling was apparently mutual, with the U.S. president referring to the prime minister as an “asshole” in the Nixon tapes. Despite this, the pairs managed to forge steadfast, if unspectacular, working relationships. Pearson and Johnson signed the Auto Pact in 1965, which removed tariffs on automobiles — a centerpiece of cross-border trade. And although relations between Canada and the United States were tepid under Nixon and Trudeau, with little of note accomplished, the pair preserved professional and pragmatic relations between their two countries, hosting one another at state functions.
How well these episodes might serve Trudeau is difficult to predict, in part because Trump has provided so little insight into how he’d like relations with Canada to develop. The president-elect, for his part, has said little about Canada but did tell a reporter in September 2015 that he loves the country and had no plans to build a wall along the U.S.-Canada border.
It’s not much, but it’s a useful reminder for Canadians that they won’t be the ones primarily afflicted by Trump’s character flaws or the brunt of his policies. Regardless, Trudeau will still have to work with Trump, of course. As Pearson explained to then-French President Charles de Gaulle in 1964 about the United States, “To live alongside this great country is like living with your wife. At times it is difficult to live with her. At all times it is impossible to live without her.”
Canada may be entering one of those difficult times in its relationship with the United States. But with some luck and skill, even this rough patch might turn out OK.
Photo Credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images