American Power After Afghanistan
How to Rightsize the Country’s Global Role
After his election, it became clear that U.S. President Donald Trump preferred to greet other political figures with an odd and aggressive gesture: in an apparent show of dominance, he would initiate a handshake, tighten his grip, and then abruptly yank the other party toward him. He did this to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, then Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, and even Vice President Mike Pence. So when Justin Trudeau visited the White House on February 13, the Canadian prime minister came prepared. Trudeau, an amateur boxer who once worked as a nightclub bouncer, braced himself, preemptively clenched Trump’s shoulder, and remained immovable as the president shook his hand. Canadians pored over slow-motion video clips of the maneuver as if it were the winning goal in the Stanley Cup final.
In Canada, the scene helped dispel the concern that Trudeau—whose campaign had summoned up a venerable slogan of his Liberal Party, with Trudeau declaring, “Sunny ways, my friends, sunny ways”—would succumb to Trump’s alpha-male aggression. Further strengthening the impression, the prime minister and his entourage were treated with respect and bonhomie during their visit to Washington. In one survey of Canadians conducted after Trudeau returned home, 92 percent of respondents said they thought he had done a “very good,” “good,” or “acceptable” job during his Washington trip. (Full disclosure: I helped produce and edit Trudeau’s 2014 memoir, for which I was compensated with a one-time lump sum.)
Canadians have always paid close attention to the state of their country’s relationship with Washington. And with good reason: 76 percent of Canadian exports go to the United States, whereas only 18 percent of U.S. exports travel in the other direction. This means that while a shutdown of continental free trade might hobble the United States, it would devastate Canada. As former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney has put it (riffing on a comparison made by one of his predecessors, Pierre Trudeau, the father of Justin), “Free trade with the United States is like sleeping with an elephant. It’s terrific until the elephant twitches, and if the elephant rolls over, you are a dead man.”
The United States under Trump is a singularly unpredictable elephant, prone to strange nocturnal rumblings on Twitter. And so one might expect to find Canadians in a state of national agitation, bitterly torn between their suspicions of the new president and the pragmatic need to appease him for the sake of the bilateral relationship. And yet something closer to the opposite is true: at the same time that the United States has descended into partisan rancor, Canada’s political class has embraced a bipartisan consensus in favor of free trade and has decisively rejected the type of nativist politics so popular in much of the United States and Europe these days. Overall, the rise of Trump has made Canadians more conscious of the pluralistic values that inform their society and more full-throated in their defense of those values. In an unintended way, Trump has done much to give Canada the elevated international stature it has long craved.
Canada is a liberal country in both the modern and the classical senses of the word: it is socially progressive in outlook and protective of individual rights. Although populism is not foreign to Canada, it tends to express itself primarily through the politics of geography—not, as it does in the United States, through the politics of ideology, race, or class. A conservative reform movement in the 1980s and 1990s, for instance, was rooted in displeasure in western Canada at policies seen as favoring Ontario and Quebec. Even the late Toronto mayor Rob Ford, whose crassness seemed to presage Trump’s, drew most of his support from disaffected suburbanites who opposed policies favored by well-heeled downtowners.
Trump’s apocalyptic vision—in which native-born citizens are besieged by Islamist terrorism, illegal immigrants, and foreign trade—is alien to mainstream Canadian politics. The two major federal parties, Trudeau’s Liberals and the opposition Conservatives, share a broad consensus on the value of free trade and immigration. As Adam Daifallah, a conservative Canadian writer, told me, to find a significant Canadian figure who practiced Trump’s brand of demagogic populism, one must go back to the 1930s-era priest and broadcaster Charles Coughlin. “And even he ended up being more influential in the United States than in his native Canada,” Daifallah said.
It’s no surprise, then, that Trump and his agenda are extremely unpopular in Canada. One survey released in June found that more than 80 percent of Canadians consider the U.S. president bad for the environment, bad for the United States’ image, and bad for global peace. Asked to choose between pairs of adjectives that best describe Trump in the same poll, 92 percent of respondents chose “rude” over “gracious,” 78 percent chose “dishonest” over “honest,” and 65 percent chose “dumb” over “smart.”
The rise of Trump has made Canadians more conscious of the pluralistic values that inform their society.
Given such sentiments, Trudeau might have been tempted to score some quick political points by denouncing the U.S. president—a time-tested gambit for Canadian politicians. But aside from a few veiled references to his counterpart’s Islamophobia and some calm statements of disapproval of Trump’s climate policy, Trudeau has held his fire. “We don’t believe that public condemnation is the right way to go,” one insider in the prime minister’s office explained to me. “Lots of people have tried to condemn this guy. It doesn’t work.”
Above all, Trudeau seems motivated by a desire to avoid giving Trump any additional pretext to act on his protectionist impulses. So far, the president has issued an executive order making “buy American, hire American” official policy, pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and suggested that the United States ignore unfavorable World Trade Organization rulings. During the presidential campaign, Trump called the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, “one of the worst deals ever made by any country,” and in May, the U.S. trade representative notified Congress of the administration’s intention to renegotiate the treaty.
But as of this writing, formal negotiations over NAFTA have not yet begun. That doesn’t mean Canada is out of the woods, however. The Trump administration has suggested that it may push for more favorable treatment on auto parts, pharmaceuticals, intellectual property, alcohol, steel, and aluminum. It may also reiterate long-standing complaints over Ottawa’s support for the softwood lumber and aerospace industries, as well as press for changes to NAFTA’s dispute-settlement provisions that could compromise Canada’s ability to hold the United States to account. Trump has also taken Canada to task for its protectionist quota system for dairy products, warning on Twitter, “We will not stand for this. Watch!”
In public, the Canadian government has responded calmly to such protectionist threats, but behind the scenes, it has been anything but passive. Immediately after Trump’s surprise victory, Trudeau and his advisers began a full-court press aimed at convincing U.S. officials that sticking with free trade remained in the United States’ economic interests. Trudeau reorganized the prime minister’s office to create a new standalone unit, led by Brian Clow, a Liberal Party operative, charged with managing relations with Washington. Trudeau fired Stéphane Dion, his foreign minister, whose bookish character and awkward English made him a bad fit for Trump and his team, and replaced him with Chrystia Freeland, a media-savvy former journalist who once lived in New York.
During the Obama administration, the prime minister’s office usually approached the U.S. government through formal channels. On energy and the environment, for example, it worked with Brian Deese, the lone senior White House official charged with Canadian relations on those issues. In the Trump era, it has launched the diplomatic equivalent of a carpet-bombing campaign: Canadian emissaries have relentlessly knocked on doors throughout the United States, spreading their message as widely as possible. Even the leaders of Canada’s thinly populated northern territories and Atlantic provinces have gotten into the game. “We are going broad and deep to governors, legislators, even mayors,” the insider in the prime minister’s office told me. “And we aren’t ignoring Democrats, many of whom share Trump’s instincts.” According to a tally offered by Freeland on May 23, since Trump’s inauguration, Canadian representatives had met 115 members of Congress and 35 state governors or lieutenant governors, in addition to holding 235 meetings with other U.S. officials.
As part of this effort, Trudeau has also enlisted Conservatives known to wield influence in Washington. These include Mulroney (who knows Trump from Palm Beach, Florida, where both have homes), Derek Burney (Canada’s ambassador to the United States from 1989 to 1993), and Rona Ambrose (the Conservatives’ interim leader from 2015 to 2017). Although they have no formal roles, they have proved helpful in supplying the Trudeau team with contacts and gently making the case for maintaining good relations with Canada among American elites.
Some of Trudeau’s advisers have even managed to strike up unlikely relationships with members of Trump’s team. Katie Telford, Trudeau’s chief of staff, has formed a good working rapport with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and one of his senior advisers, after meeting him in New York after the election. One of Trudeau’s top advisers, the progressive-minded Gerald Butts, has bonded with one of Trump’s, the right-wing nationalist Steve Bannon. Despite the enormous ideological gulf that separates them, both men come from humble backgrounds—Butts is the son of a coal miner, and Bannon the son of a telephone lineman—and both, in their own way, care about improving the lot of the middle class.
In Canada, Trump has had a paradoxically stabilizing effect on national politics.
In managing their outreach, the Canadians have closely studied Trump’s decision-making style. Xi Jinping’s successful meetings with Trump in April, in which the Chinese president managed to change his U.S. counterpart’s mind on trade and North Korea, proved instructive. Trudeau’s advisers concluded that Trump needs to come out of a meeting with some sort of win for him or his family, whether it be a business deal, an upbeat headline, or even just an attention-grabbing photograph. Trudeau’s high-profile photo ops with Trump’s daughter Ivanka in Washington and New York have been no accident; one of the best ways to please Trump, Trudeau’s team has realized, is to show respect to his family members.
One of the best ways to incur Trump’s wrath, of course, is to insult him. So Trudeau has ruthlessly enforced message discipline within his party. In the past, Canadian leaders would sometimes play up their conflicts with the United States to arouse nationalist support, or they would permit the formation of vocal anti-American constituencies within their backbenches as a way of releasing pressure. In 2004, one Liberal member of Parliament created a furor when she stepped on a doll of U.S. President George W. Bush for a comedy-show sketch; these days, it is impossible to imagine a member of Parliament performing such a brazen gesture. If there has been any intra-Liberal dissent against Trudeau’s approach to Trump, it has been very well hidden. As for the New Democratic Party, Canada’s social democratic party, its members of Parliament have called on Trudeau to denounce Trump. But the NDP is in the midst of a leadership transition, and Canadians have showed relatively little interest in its line of attack.
In April, Trudeau burnished his bilateral bona fides when Trump declared that Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto had convinced him to step back from his plans to scrap NAFTA. In the most dramatic telling of the backstory, reported by Canada’s National Post, Trump’s reversal followed back-channel pleas to Ottawa made by White House advisers, who urged the prime minister to get on the phone and bend the president’s ear. The reality, according to another Trudeau aide, was slightly less dramatic. Trudeau’s team had read on Politico that Trump was considering ripping up NAFTA, so they contacted officials at the White House, who told them that the president had a window for a phone call. “What it was not,” explained the adviser, “was Jared Kushner calling up and saying, ‘Hey, call now!’”
That said, Trudeau’s opinion clearly does carry weight with Trump, which is one reason the prime minister’s handling of the United States has proved so popular at home. Until recently, Canada tended to see itself as an ignored child tugging on Uncle Sam’s pant leg. Now Trudeau (and Peña Nieto) has become the adult in the room, doing his best to prevent Trump from destroying the North American economy with a stroke of his pen.
Canadians’ attitudes on foreign policy have long turned on Canada’s relationship with the United States, and especially the Canadian public’s perception of the U.S. president. Canada joined NATO’s 1999 mission in Kosovo in large part because Canadians trusted President Bill Clinton as a reliable partner who promoted international comity. They were less enamored of President George W. Bush, and so Prime Minister Jean Chrétien decided that Canada would sit out the Iraq war. (His successor, Paul Martin, did send Canadian troops to Afghanistan in 2006, however.) For decades, Canada saw itself as a nation of principled multilateralists, duty-bound to resist the American impulse for unilateralism and bellicosity.
This pattern was scrambled somewhat during the era of President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a Conservative given to hawkish slogans. For the first time in recent memory, the Canadian leader took more militant positions than his U.S. counterpart on the protection of Israel, the threat of radical Islam, and the war against terrorism more generally. Trudeau’s government has restored Canada’s traditional dovishness, but that can sometimes read as wimpishness. In 2014, a year before becoming prime minister, Trudeau dismissed Canada’s contribution to U.S. operations against the Islamic State, or ISIS, in vulgar terms—he accused Harper of “trying to whip out our CF-18s and show them how big they are”—which suggested that he had done little serious thinking about the issue. And his early decision to halt Canada’s involvement in that campaign, although consistent with a campaign pledge, suggested a pacifistic approach to the war on terrorism. If Canada would not join its allies in attacking such a universally reviled foe, then where would it make a stand?
After his election, Trump added to the sense of flux by breaking the well-established pattern of internationalism that Canada (and other U.S. allies, from Australia to Japan to Saudi Arabia) had come to rely on. Unlike all his predecessors going back to Franklin Roosevelt, Trump appears to be an inveterate isolationist who occasionally lapses into martial fantasies about exterminating terrorists. Would Canada try to take up the slack in the liberal order while the United States was out of commission? Would it instead lie low? It was anyone’s guess how Canada would reimagine its foreign policy in the age of Trump.
Something of an answer came in June 2017, when Freeland announced that Canada, which has traditionally ranked near the bottom of NATO countries in the share of GDP devoted to defense, would make “a substantial investment” in new military spending. Coming just two weeks after Trump castigated fellow alliance members for not paying their “fair share,” the gesture might have been interpreted as one of appeasement. But Freeland couched the announcement in language that suggested the opposite. “The fact that our friend and ally has come to question the very worth of its mantle of global leadership puts into sharper focus the need for the rest of us to set our own clear and sovereign course,” Freeland said. She added, “For their unique, seven-decades-long contribution to our shared peace and prosperity, and on behalf of all Canadians, I would like to profoundly thank our American friends.” It seemed a clever bit of triangulation: Give Trump exactly what he wants to avoid his wrath, while presenting the move to Canadians as a means to help stabilize an international order that Trump is endangering.
Freeland also reiterated Canada’s disappointment with Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris agreement, putting climate change at the top of her list of “clear challenges” that Canada’s upgraded military may face. Others included “civil war, poverty, drought, and natural disasters.” It is still early days, and this catalog of focus-group-tested foreign policy issues seems too broad to form the basis for a coherent new foreign policy. But seeing as how this Freeland Doctrine—free-trade internationalism, infused with environmentalism and pluralism—artfully folds in so many of the elements that are already popular with Canadians, it has the promise of eventually being reduced, like a sauce in a pan, to something substantial.
Trump has destabilized politics outside the United States for a number of reasons. He has legitimized viewpoints once considered toxic in the mainstream party politics of developed nations. He has renounced long-standing treaties and questioned traditional alliances, stoking fears of abandonment in foreign capitals. And he has demonstrated a chaotic style of governance and personal fickleness that have left governments unsure of his next move.
Yet in Canada, Trump has had a paradoxically stabilizing effect on national politics. Whereas the presidencies of George W. Bush and Obama tapped into long-standing fissures between the Canadian left and the Canadian right, Trump is regarded almost universally among Canadians as an object of derision. Canadians are not beset by the sort of intractable culture war that rages in the United States, where two mutually antagonistic tribes are getting their news—much of it fake—from two different sets of sources. During the Conservative Party’s leadership campaign earlier this year, the only candidate who attempted to use dog-whistle rhetoric to speak to anti-Muslim skeptics of immigration, Kellie Leitch, attracted just seven percent of the vote on the first ballot. The eventual winner, Andrew Scheer, is an optimistic 38-year-old who, until 2015, served as Speaker of the House of Commons—a role that, within Canada’s parliamentary system, requires impartial and collegial behavior.
Scheer has a tough path ahead, because Trump’s presidency has made Trudeau a more formidable opponent. Ever since Trudeau became leader of the Liberal Party, in 2013, pundits have been writing countless columns predicting that his honeymoon would soon end. And it is true that some of his hard domestic choices (he approved the expansion of a controversial pipeline) and cynical reversals (he broke his campaign promise to reform the electoral system) have dimmed his star. But on one key issue—Canada’s ability to ship crude oil and bitumen from its western oil sands into the United States—Trump has made Trudeau’s life much easier. The Obama administration blocked construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline through several U.S. states, a project that would allow significantly greater throughput. The Trump administration has reversed this decision, providing a massive boon to Canada’s oil industry without Trudeau having to lift a finger and saving him from sullying his reputation among environmentalists (whose primary focus has been preventing the construction of a new pipeline off the coast of British Columbia).
More important, as was the case with Obama, Trudeau’s popularity overseas is burnishing his brand back home. Trudeau’s awkward predecessors, Harper, Martin, and Chrétien, were not exactly front-page eye candy, and Canadians are still getting used to having a leader who is feted internationally. Even more unusual, however, is that Trudeau is being talked of not just as a charming politician but also as a defender of the free world. Two weeks after the 2016 U.S. election, the British historian Timothy Garton Ash spoke in Toronto about Brexit and the rise of Trump. Until recently, attendees at such a talk would have seen themselves as mere provincials gathering to hear a report from the great halls of power in London and Washington. But that was not the sense that night. After reciting the tale of how the two most powerful English-speaking nations on earth had succumbed to populism, and surveying the “global counterrevolution against liberalism” unfolding elsewhere, Garton Ash identified Canada and Germany as “two points of light in a fairly dark picture.” It was a statement of fact, but a stunning one nonetheless.
As its hard power declined in relative terms in the decades after World War II, Canada was never more than a marginal player in the global order. Canadian internationalists tried to argue otherwise, highlighting Canada’s championing of multilateralism, soft power, and the “responsibility to protect” doctrine. But in practice, the world was uninterested in being hectored about such abstract principles, and Canada’s relatively small economic and military might meant that the country could never escape its true role as the United States’ sidekick. This stubborn truth helps explain why so much of Canadian intellectual life has traditionally been organized in support of or in opposition to the United States.
Anti-Americanism in Canada began to ebb after 2008, with the election of Obama, who was more popular among Canadian liberals than Harper, and after the housing crisis, which laid the United States’ economy low but spared Canada’s. Although one might have expected Trump’s election to have revived this anti-Americanism, it has in fact helped seal its fate, since Canadians now look at the United States not as a power to be joined or resisted but as a neighbor down on its luck. Canadians used to discuss such issues as health care, taxation, and foreign policy as corollaries to the deeper moral question of whether Canada should style itself in the United States’ image. But in the age of Trump, that question seems utterly ridiculous, especially considering that Americans themselves feel so confused by the state of their politics. Trump’s presidency is thus encouraging Canadians to view their country’s place in the world in light of their own circumstances and values, and not by comparison with the United States.
The plight of the liberal order seems slightly less dire that it did in late 2016, when Trudeau and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were fighting their lonely struggle to defend it. Trump’s more radical instincts have been kept in check by the U.S. court system and by divisions within his own party. Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, the election of French President Emmanuel Macron, a decided Europhile, has signaled a counterrevolution against nativist populism. Free trade, too, seems less endangered now than it once did. Although Trump could still use his diminished political capital to push for changes to NAFTA, the renegotiation process would likely stretch out past the end of his first term. (The negotiation of Canada’s free-trade agreement with the EU, finalized in 2014, took five years.) And with Trudeau’s team already deeply engaged in the effort to enlist allies south of the border, it seems unlikely that U.S. negotiators would be able to bulldoze the Canadians.
Since his inauguration, Trump has often seemed to be a foreign policy crisis on two legs. But out of crisis comes opportunity. And in Canada’s case, this includes the opportunity to redefine its role in the world and take on new missions. Freeland’s announced increase in military spending will likely help Canada do just that. So will a new policy through which the majority of Canada’s overseas development aid will go to programs that promote gender equality and the health of women and girls. Canada could also ramp up its naval patrols in its warming Arctic waters, which will see freight traffic surge in the coming decades. In this and other areas, Canada can now find its own way, without regard to how its interests might intersect with those of the United States. That marks an important moment in the development of a modern, independent identity for Canada. And in a strange way, Trump has helped the country get there.