Commentary from Colin Robertson

Why Trudeau's 'Goldilocks' strategy with Trump is the best approach

by Colin Robertson

The Globe and Mail
February 6, 2017

Canada’s relationship with the United States is deep and profound. The Trump challenge is going to test Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s sunny ways and then some. No other country, excepting Mexico, has such vital interests at stake.

As President, Donald Trump has tempered neither his language nor his behaviour. His campaign punchlines on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, NAFTA, Muslim refugees and the Mexican wall have become executive orders.

We need to take Mr. Trump very seriously, and often literally. This means planning, not panic; a co-ordinated, all-of-Canada strategy demonstrating that we are a fair trading partner and reliable ally.

Mr. Trudeau understands that the most important relationship for any Canadian prime minister is that with the president of the United States.

With Barack Obama it was a bromance built on a shared commitment to climate, internationalism and progressive politics. A working relationship with Mr. Trump will need to be constructed on different lines, beginning with points of convergence: shared perimeter security, continuing regulatory reform and joint infrastructure projects.

Mr. Trump likes attractive celebrities. The Trudeaus have both qualities. If this helps convince Mr. Trump of our security and trade bona fides, then Canadian interests will be well served.

The first face-to-face encounter will be important. A working visit to the White House would be preferable. It would allow Mr. Trudeau to take the cabinet ministers responsible for security, trade and energy, and they must spend time on Capitol Hill with congressional leadership.

Mr. Trudeau has handled the initial phase well: inviting Mr. Trump to Canada; having ambassador David MacNaughton signal a willingness to reopen NAFTA; the reach-out to Mr. Trump’s senior staff.

Importantly, Mr. Trudeau has kept the lid on anti-Trump comments, in contrast to the unforced errors by cabinet, caucus and senior staff during the Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin and Stephen Harper governments that unnecessarily marred relations with the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.

The Trump cabinet – bankers, billionaires and generals – are globally experienced executives whose views, as their Senate confirmation hearings demonstrated, often differ from Mr. Trump’s. This does not trouble him.

We can hope that after setting the general direction, Mr. Trump will leave the application to his cabinet secretaries, with Vice-President Mike Pence acting as chief operating officer. Mr. Trudeau should consider naming a deputy prime minister as counterpart to Mr. Pence. The Trudeau cabinet should be all over their Trump counterparts with practical initiatives that serve both our interests.

Given Mr. Trump’s transactional approach and business-minded team, Mr. Trudeau also needs to enlist business leaders in Canada and the U.S. to make the case for our mutually profitable economic integration.

The Trump challenge is testing governments everywhere.

Fellow G8 and G20 leaders will monitor the Trudeau approach. In testing our interests, Mr. Trump’s actions are reaffirming our values on pluralism and internationalism, underlining the recent Economist cover: “Liberty moves North.”

For now, Mr. Trudeau is playing it cool. The Goldilocks strategy is the right one: quiet engagement while not letting relations get too hot nor too cold. Mr. Trump will provoke. This is the “art of the deal.” Our general operating principle must be to keep calm and carry on.

Sticking up for our friends, especially Mexico, is important. During his visit to Mexico last week, Natural Energy Minister Jim Carr reaffirmed Canada-Mexico collaboration with a new accord on mining, energy security and clean energy. It should be followed up with by a Trudeau visit to talk about Trump, trade and hemispheric priorities.

Blazing across the global skies like a comet, Mr. Trump’s every action dominates the headlines and sets the news cycles. Not since Napoleon has a leader bestrode the global stage with such forceful unpredictability.

Like Napoleon, Mr. Trump appears to be championing the rearrangement, if not disintegration, of the world order created and sustained by predecessor presidents, Republican and Democrat. In redefining the conduct of diplomacy through his tweets and telephone calls, he is testing the norms of U.S. engagement with the world.

How far can Mr. Trump’s disruptive approach go? We have to trust in the U.S. Constitution, with its checks and balances and separation of powers. The founding fathers, whose statecraft has endured for nearly two and a half centuries, were determined to prevent a king.

A former diplomat, Colin Robertson is vice-president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.


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