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On April 2, 1965, Prime Minister Lester Pearson of Canada traveled to Philadelphia, where he gave an address urging U.S. President Lyndon Johnson to consider a limited halt in the bombing of North Vietnam. Although Pearson’s appeal was respectful and restrained, the president felt betrayed, and he let it be known when the two met at Camp David the next day. After a frosty lunch, Johnson led Pearson by the arm to a stone terrace and, for the next hour, lit into him for coming to his “backyard” and attacking him on Vietnam.
Charles Ritchie, Canada’s ambassador to the United States at the time, recorded the tirade in his diary. Johnson “strode the terrace, he sawed the air with his arms, with upraised fist he drove home the verbal hammer blows.” Pearson, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering a settlement in the Sinai in 1956, sat silently through the so-called Johnson treatment. The dressing-down reached a climax when the lanky president grabbed Pearson by the lapel and hissed, “You don’t come here and piss on my rug!”
The relationship between the two never recovered. As the war in Vietnam escalated, Pearson realized that he could do nothing to stop it. Johnson never again asked Canada, “Now, what can I do for you?” as he had when he telephoned Pearson to thank him for sending peacekeepers to Cyprus in 1964. For decades, that afternoon at Camp David marked the nadir in a century and a half of relations between Canada and the United States.
Until, that is, earlier this month, when U.S. President Donald Trump turned on Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after the G-7 summit in Quebec. Trump’s insults—he called Trudeau “very dishonest & weak” in a tweet—have stoked fears of a devastating trade war at a time when Canada and other U.S. allies are already reeling from the president’s breathless assault on the postwar international order that the United States itself helped create. If this trajectory continues, Canada may well have to consider something radical for a longtime loyal neighbor and partner: going its own way.
The disagreement began at a news conference after the summit, when Trudeau reiterated his frustration with the tariffs that the United States had just slapped on Canadian aluminum and steel, ostensibly for national security reasons, saying that it was “kind of insulting” for such a stalwart U.S. ally as Canada to be portrayed as a threat. Trump abruptly withdrew the United States from the summit’s joint communiqué, and in a volley of tweets sent from Air Force One as it banked over the St. Lawrence River, he lambasted Trudeau. The worst invective, however, came from two of Trump’s economic advisers: Larry Kudlow claimed that Trudeau “stabbed us in the back,” and Peter Navarro said that the prime minister’s comments had consigned him to “a special place in hell.”
Duplicitous? Unfaithful? Could this really be Canada—the world’s Boy Scout, the honest broker, the Mister Rogers of nations? The attacks stunned Canadians. Never before had they been treated this way in public. Canadian prime ministers and U.S. presidents have clashed before, but the tensions arose largely in private, and they were resolved through quiet diplomacy. The contretemps between Pearson and Johnson, for example, was a secret until Ritchie revealed it, in 1974, after both leaders had died. With Trump, one need not wait for the memoirs: artlessly frank, this president holds back little in the moment.
More disturbing is how this personal chilliness may undermine the substance of the relationship. In the past, altercations between national leaders were personal, not institutional. None went to the heart of relations. Yes, U.S. President John F. Kennedy once called Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker an “SOB” and did not appreciate his refusal to put Canadian troops on alert during the Cuban missile crisis. But Diefenbaker relented, honoring Canada’s commitments to continental defense. Johnson blew up at Pearson over Vietnam but valued Canada as a trading partner and as a member of NATO. And whatever the strains between the two leaders, Canada and the United States still struck major agreements, such as the Auto Pact of 1965.
U.S. President Richard Nixon and Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (father of Justin) also clashed over Vietnam, and in a 1971 White House tape recording, the president was heard speaking of “that asshole Trudeau.” (“My only response was that I had been called worse things by better people,” Trudeau would later say.) Still, the relationship grew. Pierre Trudeau rankled U.S. President Ronald Reagan, too. Reagan was no fan of Trudeau’s freelance peace initiative in 1983, when the prime minister traveled the world preaching nuclear disarmament. But Reagan came to respect him. Likewise, even though U.S. President George W. Bush resented Canada’s refusal to join the United States in invading Iraq in 2003, he never punished Canada for it.
Indeed, every time things soured between president and prime minister, the personal did not materially affect the commercial. The relationship was always bigger than the leaders, and it continued to grow into what it is today: two countries with the largest trading partnership in the world, sharing the longest nonmilitarized border in the world. “We are your best friend,” Canadians tell Americans, “whether you know it or not.”
Tantrums don’t alarm Canada; tariffs do.
What makes Trump different from past presidents, Canadians fear, is that his distaste for the prime minister is not just personal. Tantrums don’t alarm Canada; tariffs do. The president’s crude protectionism has drawn uniform condemnation in Canada, and if Trump imposes stiff duties on automobiles from Canada, as he has threatened to do, it will sting. If he goes so far as to abandon the North American Free Trade Agreement altogether, as he has also threatened to do, it will be ruinous. The United States’ leaving NAFTA would constitute a frontal attack on the two countries’ shared commitment to free trade—one of their alliance’s foundational principles, along with collective security, multilateralism, democracy, and the free market. It would also send Canada into recession. Without NAFTA, Scotiabank has predicted, Canada’s economy would contract by 1.8 percent in 2020.
For the moment, Canadians can do nothing other than pursue negotiations on NAFTA, vowing to stay at the table until the table is taken away—which Trump may yet do. As long as Trump continues to negotiate, Canada will, too. Trudeau could make a concession on dairy subsidies, which have been Trump’s chief complaint. Doing so would be politically difficult for Trudeau, since the dairy farmers who benefit are mostly in Quebec, a province that his party, the Liberals, must win to stay in power, but the move would allow Trump to save face and Trudeau to save NAFTA.
For now, at least, Trump’s talk is still just talk. His anger may soon fade, just as it did with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un. But if Trump were to withdraw from NAFTA, Canada would retaliate. Already, in reaction to Trump’s aluminum and steel tariffs, the Canadian government has announced tariffs on a number of U.S. goods, including maple syrup and whiskey, many of them made in states loyal to Trump, and if Trump left NAFTA, Canada would no doubt levy even more. Canadians, for their part, would likely boycott American goods and embrace “buy Canadian.” Against the world’s greatest economy, however, Canada would lose a trade war. Canada relies on trade for its prosperity; the United States does not. If Canada cannot sell automobiles south of the border, plants will close in southern Ontario, the engine of the Canadian economy, leading to a disastrous domino effect on hundreds of suppliers of parts and materials.
Only then, in the ashes of NAFTA, would things get dangerous for Canada. At that point, Canadians would have to decide whether Trump is a summer squall in the relationship that will pass with the election of another president or whether “America first” represents a new ice age. If it is the latter, Canada will face an agonizing decision. The default option would be to remain committed to North America, with all the obvious advantages of shared geography, history, democracy, and language. That is what the country has done for most of its history, and could continue to do, although it would be near impossible to breach the protectionist walls of “Fortress America.”
Or Canada could take a different direction. It could diversify its economy and pivot to Europe and Asia, gradually reducing its economic dependence on the United States. This would mean revisiting the “Third Option,” a proposal that Pierre Trudeau’s government made in 1972 in reaction to protectionist measures imposed by the Nixon administration. The idea back then was to sell less to the United States and more to Europe. Today, it would mean creating a new trade agreement with a post-Brexit United Kingdom, pursuing free trade with China and other Asian countries, and deepening the existing agreement with the EU. Canada’s trade would become less continental and more global.
This would be a difficult, perhaps impossible, option. It is easier to trade across the street than across the ocean. Canada would have to retool its economy, relying less on exports of natural resources and shifting more heavily to high technology and light manufacturing. That would take decades, but with its diverse, multilingual, well-educated, and globally connected population, the country could do this more easily than most.
Such a shift would signal the emergence of a bolder, more confident Canada, one more European than American in outlook. In particular, Canadian foreign policy might become more Nordic, given that Canada shares a climate (cold), geography (northern), and values (egalitarian, liberal, communitarian) with Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. Indeed, in their belief in universal health care, gender parity, minority rights, and a social safety net, as well as their rejection of guns, religion in politics, and capital punishment, Canadians have always been more Nordic than American.
This does not mean that Canada would ever abandon its security commitments to North America or declare neutrality. Canada would surely enhance, rather than diminish, its commitment to NATO. But untethered to the United States, Canada would gravitate more strongly to the UN and other international institutions that it has always supported but that Trump’s unilateralist United States distrusts. Unfazed by the threat of economic retaliation, Canada would be more skeptical of U.S. positions that offend its progressive worldview, such as full-throated support for Israel. The reality is that a Canada less economically dependent on the United States would be more politically independent of the United States.
All of this would represent a sea change for Canada, and an existential challenge, too. But having never seen a U.S. president like Trump before, Canadians must now think in a way they never have before: contemplating a radical new course in a world without America.