The U.S.-Canada alliance has withstood personal animosity between its leaders, but the American president is unlike any Canada has seen before.
President Donald Trump has gotten off to a miserable start with key U.S. allies. Though his weekend golf outing with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe apparently didn’t result in any dustups over Trump’s slippery interpretation of the game’s rules, he has hung up the phone on Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and, in a call with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, threatened to send the U.S. military into the country to deal with the “tough hombres down there.”
No doubt these clashes are on the mind of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as he visits Washington, D.C., on Monday. There is plenty of potential for the two men to butt heads, as they’re polar opposites in most ways. Trump is a nationalist and immigration restrictionist, while Trudeau is a cosmopolitan champion of multiculturalism; after Trump issued an executive order banning immigration to the U.S. from seven predominantly Muslim countries, Trudeau tweeted, “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength.” Stylistically, Trump is blunt and crude while Trudeau has been known to recite French poetry.
Yet as a practical matter, Trump and Trudeau have a strong incentive to get along. Canada is America’s largest export market and third largest import market. The two leaders want to build the Keystone XL pipeline. Trump’s ire at NAFTA is aimed at his southern neighbor, not his northern one. So if the two leaders are governed by political expediency, they could get along very well. That seems to be the hope from both sides. Last week, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the bilateral meeting will focus on “trade and security and commerce,” while Trudeau said, “We both got elected on commitments to strengthen the middle class and support those working hard to join it, and that’s what we are going to focus on in these meetings.”
But Trudeau has cited the economy as his “second responsibility” in meeting with Trump, the first being “to highlight Canadian values and principles and the things that keep our country strong.” In a Maclean’s magazine column expressing hope that Trudeau could become “the Trump whisperer,” Scott Gilmore summarized those values and principles thus:
Right now, the core principles that Canadians hold so dearly, that define us, such as liberal democracy, multiculturalism and a values-based international order, are being threatened globally. And, what’s worse, there are precious few nations inclined or able to swim against the current tide. Canada is the exception. Unlike France, or Germany, or Australia, no one in our political landscape (who has even modest support) wants to withdraw from the global trading system, close our borders to refugees or abandon our traditional transatlantic alliances. We even have broad agreement on once-controversial topics like climate change.
Canada is uniquely placed to become not just a champion for all of these ideals, but the champion. Our Prime Minister should stand on the world stage and thunder in defence of NATO, the Paris Agreement, NAFTA, and WTO.
It’s safe to say Trump does not share this worldview, providing ample cause for the two men to quarrel sooner or later. But there’s one fact that should give Canadians comfort: previous prime minsters, including Trudeau’s father, have had terrible personal relations with U.S. presidents without damaging the longstanding alliance between the two nations.
It’s also true that Canada has never dealt with a president quite like Trump.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy visited Ottawa and had what Jacqueline Kennedy described as a “painful” conversation with John Diefenbaker, the Conservative prime minister, who regaled the American couple with boring stories about his friendship with leaders like Winston Churchill. During a tree-planting ceremony, Kennedy tried to one-up Diefenbaker by energetically digging some dirt and in the process sprained his back, causing persistent pain that required treatment until his death. During that meeting, someone from Kennedy’s staff left behind a memo, written by his advisor Walt Rostow, that outlined ways the U.S. could “push” Canada. It also had a marginalia note, possibly written by Kennedy, describing Diefenbaker as an “SOB.” Diefenbaker got hold of the memo, and in 1963 it was leaked to the press. This angered Kennedy, who in a private conversation described Diefenbaker as a “thief and liar” although Kennedy denied authoring the “SOB” doodle. (Kennedy seems to have mistakenly believed that Diefenbaker stole the memo, although the more likely scenario is that it was accidentally left behind.)
Kennedy, the dashing young technocrat, loathed Diefenbaker, a jowly old populist. As Kennedy tried to infuse American foreign policy with more vigor by supporting regime change in Cuba and an American military build-up in Vietnam, he found that Diefenbaker was a persistent impediment. The Canadian leader refused to join in the American embargo of Cuba and China, and during the Cuban Missile Crisis he rejected the demand that he put Canada’s military on war footing immediately (he wanted to consult his cabinet first). In 1963, when Diefenbaker refused to accept nuclear warheads on Canadian soil, the Kennedy administration started working actively, and successfully, to unseat Diefenbaker and replace him with Liberal leader Lester Pearson. The State Department accused Diefenbaker of lying about the missiles, and Kennedy’s administration sent advertising men to advise Pearson on an election campaign that resulted in Diefenbaker’s losing power.
If Kennedy helped elevate Pearson to power, this didn’t improve personal relations between Canadian and American leaders. After Kennedy’s assassination, Pearson clashed with President Lyndon Johnson. In a speech delivered in Philadelphia, Pearson called for the U.S. to halt its bombing campaign against North Vietnam and to begin negotiations, an intervention in foreign policy that didn’t endear him to Johnson. When Pearson visited Johnson at Camp David in 1965, the American leader grabbed the Canadian and shouted, “You don’t come here and piss on my rug.”
Pearson’s successor, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, also clashed with the American government over Vietnam. Bowing to public pressure in Canada, Trudeau allowed American draft evaders to stay in Canada. Naturally, Trudeau and Richard Nixon hated each other. In conversations caught on tape, Nixon referred to Trudeau as a “clever son of a bitch” and “an asshole.” When these remarks became public during the Watergate controversy, Trudeau said, “I’ve been called worse things by better people.” Diefenbaker, who was then a member of Parliament, responded by praising Nixon’s knowledge of human anatomy.
Canadians and Americans who are worried about Trump might take some comfort from this history—that even personal hatred between a prime minister and president hasn’t done serious damage to relations between the nations. This is because the Canadian-American alliance, going back at least to World War I, rests on many shared commonalities. Both are predominately English-speaking capitalist democracies that started as settler colonies, and today they’re as integrated culturally as they are economically. Kennedy and Diefenbaker, Johnson and Pearson, Nixon and Pierre Trudeau all disagreed about specific policies while sharing a broad consensus in favor of more open trade, membership in NATO, and supporting the Western alliance in general.
But this is why Trump could pose the biggest challenge to this North American relationship. He disagrees, in key ways, with the longstanding foreign policy goals that have bound Canada and the United States together. Trump is a protectionist who wants to re-make NATO into something resembling a protection racket more than an alliance. So if Trump and Trudeau clash, it’ll go far beyond the personality disputes of old and enter into genuine ideological disagreement. It would take a lot to destroy Canadian-American relations, but if anyone can do it, it’s Trump.
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