Walking Trump Tightrope Gets Trickier For Trudeau

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This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on June 11, 2017.

Trump will undoubtedly see Trudeau’s commitment to increase defence spending as an opening gambit in not only the upcoming NAFTA negotiations, but in future dealings with the American government.

Last week, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced the Liberal government’s commitment to increase defence spending by more than 70 per cent over the next 10 years, boosting annual spending from $18.9 to $37.2 billion.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has positioned the increase as Canada stepping up to play a leadership role on the world stage — just as the United States turns inward.

As the U.S. rapidly transitions away from its commitments as a global leader, Freeland argues that Canada must step up, do its part, and chart its own course.

Increasingly, it appears the U.S. has become an international laggard lining up on the wrong side of history.

The world’s largest economy is threatening to leave the World Trade Organization. The U.S. president refuses to formally commit to respecting NATO’s foundational principal. The country has formally withdrawn from both the Paris Climate Change Agreement and the Trans Pacific Partnership. And Donald Trump’s bromance with the globe’s autocrats is increasingly pushing the United States to the sidelines of international multilateral organizations.

Freeland foreshadowed the increase in defence spending in her remarks in the House of Commons on Tuesday when she said that, “to rely solely on the U.S. security umbrella would make us a client state,” and that “such a dependence would not be in Canada’s interest.”

Freeland’s speech and Sajjan’s announcement are acknowledgments that the U.S. is no longer a predictable and dependable ally, that it is heading in a fundamentally different direction than both Canada and the rest of the developed world, and that it is time for Canada stand up for what it believes in.

Freeland’s point is clear: it’s time for Canada to lead.

In short, that is the narrative the government wants Canadians to latch on to. And, to the government’s credit, that message is beginning to work.

But maybe something else is at play.

Since the presidential campaign, Trump has aggressively challenged NATO’s Article 5. He has called NATO obsolete, has argued that 23 of the 28 member nations are not paying what they should toward defence, and has suggested that even if these countries began paying their pledged two per cent of GDP, this wouldn’t be enough.

Last year, Canada’s contribution reached 1.19 per cent of GDP. Last week’s announcement will boost Canada’s defence spending to 1.4 per cent — a significant increase.

In response, senior White House officials quickly welcomed Canada’s announcement. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said he was “heartened by today’s release of Canada’s defence policy,” and a White House spokesperson tweeted that Canada’s increase in defence spending indicated that Trump was “getting results.”

Trump, who never tires of reminding us that he is a master negotiator, will undoubtedly see Trudeau’s commitment to increase defence spending as an opening gambit in not only the upcoming NAFTA negotiations, but in future dealings with the American government.

In a stroke of strategic brilliance, Trudeau and his ministers were able to successfully develop a narrative about Canadian independence and multilateralism — the “Canadian Way” — while appeasing Trump with a commitment that is central to his administration.

Political operators know domestic politics trumps foreign policy.

And domestically, Trudeau would like nothing better than to be seen as the anti-Trump.

However, Trudeau doesn’t have the same luxury as his counterparts in France and Germany, who have been publicly critical of the president. There is simply too much at stake for Canada — on issues such as trade, continental security, and the economy.

When it comes to U.S.-Canada relations, it is now harder than ever for the prime minister and his government to keep their domestic audience on board without being entirely offside toward our southern neighbours.

What we saw last week was a prime example of that challenge. Looking ahead, it’s clear Trudeau’s balancing act isn’t going to get any easier.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.

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