by Stephen Saideman
January 20, 2017
Donald Trump’s inauguration as U.S. president has much of the world nervous, and rightfully so. Trump is no ordinary politician, and he has frequently taken all sides of many issues, so it is hard to discern what he is likely to do.
This gets to the heart of the matter: Trump generates uncertainty. Because of his disregard for the norms of American politics, because of his habit of switching positions and because he is not tied to any constituency, Trump raises doubts about American guarantees and commitments – a critical challenge not just for Canadian-American bilateral relations but for global peace and prosperity.
During the election, Trump took stances that challenged and undermined the building blocks of the post-war international order. For instance, Trump has taken the NATO burden-sharing debate to a new level, suggesting allied countries paying less than they have committed might not get American assistance if attacked. This can be compared to the past, when the U.S. was more willing than most to commit to defending the Baltic countries.
Similarly, Trump has consistently expressed a desire to protect the American market from international competition. But the U.S. market has been a key factor in global economic stability due to its openness. With a threat to raise tariffs significantly on Chinese goods and a promise to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, the U.S. will no longer be the market of last resort. This, too, should worry Canadians.
Will Trump follow through on his musings?
We do not know, which is not necessarily all that reassuring. Throughout history, uncertainty about allies – including possibly misperceiving their responses – has been a frequent cause for war. Uncertainty causes countries to anticipate, and leaves allies to hedge their bets by appeasing the likely aggressor or, in recent years, by investing in nuclear weapons. For example, in the summer of 1990, Iraqi president Saddam Hussein met with the American ambassador about border tensions between Iraq and Kuwait. Hussein left that meeting assured that the U.S. did not have a position in the dispute. That was not meant as a green light for an Iraqi attack, but that is how Hussein saw it.
How may this play out over the next four years? Already, Trump’s phone call with the president of Taiwan – with conflicting stories of whether this was planned or improvised – has led to China flying a plane armed with nuclear weapons over the South China Sea. Trump’s hostile statements about NATO will almost certainly lead to a test by Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Likewise, uncertainty is bad for most financial markets. Businesses may hold off on investing until they have a better idea of what may happen, leading to a recession. In the current case, countries may opt to side with China, rather than the United States, if they feel the former is a greater source of economic stability. Already, the likely demise of the Trans Pacific Partnership is giving China greater sway.
Why is Trump so uncertain? As a self-described deal maker, he frequently bluffs to get bargains. Such behaviour might be advantageous in real estate, but it has significant downsides in international relations. Also, Trump seems to respect no norms or rules, and he has no ties to any constituencies. Trump did not come to power by appealing to specific interest groups within the Republican Party. This aspect of Trump’s candidacy appealed to many, but again it contributes to uncertainty.
What does this mean for Canada?
A bumpy ride is the best that Canadians can hope for. If Trump destabilizes international markets, the Canadian dollar and the Toronto Stock Exchange will feel the effects. Increased trade barriers will obviously be extremely costly for Canadian producers. His NATO stances will have a direct effect on Canada’s key military engagement. If Trump pulls American troops out of East Europe, the Canadian deployment to Latvia would face a higher risk of being tested by Putin and Russia.
What can Canadian leaders do to deal with Trump’s uncertainty engine? They will have to avoid reacting to every swing, every statement, and try to work at lower levels of government. That is, Trump’s people do not have connections deep into the Washington bureaucracy, so perhaps the best bet is for Canada to work on the relationship and its many issues at the level of civil servants and not at the head of government.
Even then, misunderstandings will now be of primary concern for the next four – and potentially eight – years. Given Trump’s rocky start in relations with China, the latter’s reputed ancient curse seems prescient: “May you live in interesting times.” As an international relations scholar, I find it strange to be longing for a less interesting time in world politics.
Stephen M. Saideman is the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University.