Yesterday I quipped about Canada, and others, needing to be like small animals scurrying about while the elephants do battle, we need to be careful and nimble to avoid being trampled by the great, honking beasts.
Now, in National Newswatch, Mike Blanchfield says that “Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may have taken to Twitter this weekend to defend immigration and diversity, but behind the scenes there’s a formidable ghost bedevilling the machinery of Canadian government — Donald Trump … [because] … The U.S. president’s way of communicating — Tweets, various interview musings and executive order pronouncements — have upended the traditional, time-honoured way of conducting the business of Canada’s relations with its largest trading partner and top ally … [and] … The effect, sources tell The Canadian Press, is historic because the usual way that Canada and most western governments would make foreign policy has been thrown out the window … [and, further] … The bottom line, they say, is the absence of something very basic — paper … [because] … Trump’s first week in the White House has done away with the usual formula of public administration … In the pre-Trump world, a foreign government would make an announcement — state its intent to do something — then the paper would follow. That usually meant a written, well-considered policy statement on the way forward, or a piece of legislation that was designed to get the job done … [and] … Canadian bureaucrats would then in turn draft a policy or a response. But their pens are down, sources say, because they have nothing tangible to analyze from the Americans.“
First, I’m not surprised that the bureaucracy is confused and timid; that is the very nature of bureaucracies, and the bigger they are, and Canada’s is (relatively) HUGE, the more, likely they are to be both confused and timid … even without the Trump effect.
But the cabinet and the PMO are NOT the bureaucracy. It is, after all, 2017, and Prime Minister Trudeau, who has been hailed as, pretty much, the best thing since sliced bread, even if half of Canadians are distinctly unimpressed, and his ministers should be able to cope with the mixed messages from Washington. After all, both Gerald Butts and Katie Telford, the leaders of Team Trudeau, have been in close contact with Team Trump for many weeks. Did they not establish lines of communications and at least some personal trust and rapport? Team Trudeau was very effective at using social media in 2015; did they think they were the only ones who could communicate in that way?
Yes, President Trump is sending mixed messages. I suspect that is a mix of old habits, “new guy” enthusiasm, and a clever tactic to keep others off balance. It appears to be working. “The internal government confusion,” Mike Blanchfield says, “is mirrored by the divisions among Canadian analysts,” but the government, especially the PMO, has its own, expert analysts, including very senior officials who are not confused or timid and a trusted ambassador in Washington. Prime Minister Trudeau should know what Canada’s real vital interests are ~ hint: they have nothing to with climate change, refugees or a second class, temporary seat on the UN Security Council ~ and he should have a laser like focus on them.
Why, I wonder, was Prime Minister May in Washington, schmoozing with President Trump, while Prime Minister Trudeau, leader of the United State’s biggest trading partner, is left to try to filter mixed and confusing signals in his office? Is it, perhaps, that President Trump already thinks that we are just a single issue (NAFTA) nation that doesn’t matter in any other areas of concern to him? Or is it because he wants to use Prime Minister May as a tool to help him destabilize the European Union? Or is it because the Government of Canada did not, forcefully enough, work to secure an early face-to-face meeting? Prime Minister Trudeau has, wisely, changed foreign ministers and added some experience and intellectual heft to Minister Freeland’s office in the form of Andrew Leslie (who, despite being on a cabinet committee has been, inexplicably, in my opinion, left out ofd the cabinet, itself) but perhaps that should have happened in November, when President Trump was elected, not in January.
Like it or not, we are in a Trump era and the old rules of diplomacy and communications are changing. Canada, at the political and official – diplomatic level, must adapt. We must learn to deal with the likes of e.g. Secretaries Rex Tillerson and James Mattis, both of whom “know” Canada, and Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer. These are smart, skilled, powerful people who will come at us and to us with specific aims, be it NAFTA, border security (about which more, tomorrow) or the defence budget. Above all we must learn to deal with president Trump, himself. As I have said before, I believe that President Trump, a seasoned negotiator, likes to provoke people (Americans and foreigners alike) and then read their reactions and then make policy decisions based, in some part, on those reactions. Canada, especially prime Minister Trudeau needs to have the “right” reactions ~ I think his tweet on refugees was exactly, 100%, back-asswards wrong, it may have been good domestic politics but it was amateurish foreign policy ~ and not at all the “right” comeback. As John Ivison says, writing in the National Post, “Justin Trudeau’s “welcome to Canada” tweet on Saturday made headlines around the world — the BBC, New York Times and Al-Jazeera all portrayed the Prime Minister in the vanguard of opposition to Trump’s policy … [while] … This will have played well domestically — opposition to Trump crosses party lines but there remains a virulent strain of anti-Americanism on the progressive left that last found voice in Liberal ads suggesting a Stephen Harper victory in 2006 would put a smile on George W. Bush’s face … But while the tweet may have helped boost Trudeau’s political fortunes, it was not in the national interest. This is not Love Actually and Trudeau is not Hugh Grant, publicly berating a U.S. president for bullying his allies … [because] … Canada’s most important bilateral relationship is with the U.S. and getting on with the Americans has been one of the most important obligations of any prime minister.” It’s another “fail” by Justin Trudeau, just one amongst many.
There is a lot at stake over the next few years. I’m not persuaded that we are well armed for the fights ahead.