Commentary: Justin Trudeau masters the Trump two-step

Speaking to the National Governors Association in Providence, Rhode Island, on Friday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered an implicit rebuke to U.S. President Donald Trump’s economic ideas. "Free trade has worked," Trudeau said. "It's working now." This was just the latest instance of Trudeau’s deft handling of relations with the United States and its prickly president. Subtly criticizing President Trump’s policies, while speaking respectfully of Trump personally, Trudeau has successfully met one of the primary challenges for any Canadian prime minister and vanquished what remained of his image as little more than a pretty face.

President Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the White House. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Most leaders who criticize Trump - and many who don’t - are subject to vicious remarks from the president. Just ask German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose policy on refugees Trump derided as “insane” and “a catastrophic mistake,” or London Mayor Sadiq Khan, whom Trump called “ignorant” for opposing Trump’s campaign proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States. (Once in office, Trump modified the travel curbs to cover only certain Muslim-majority countries.)

But Trump loves Trudeau, offering good wishes on Twitter “to all of the great people of Canada and to your Prime Minister and my new found friend @JustinTrudeau.” The U.S. president said at the G-20 summit that “Justin is doing a spectacular job in Canada.” Trump’s February address to Congress singled out Trudeau for praise.

Trudeau is having difficulties at home. His government has recently drawn criticism from the right for reportedly paying 10.5 million Canadian dollars (U.S. $8 million) in a breach of rights settlement to a Canadian former Guantanamo Bay detainee who admitted fighting U.S. troops in Afghanistan and from the left for the stumbles by Canada’s national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women. But he is managing well in his toughest task of all: getting along with the United States during the Trump era.


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Keeping the Canada-U.S. relationship strong is the most important job of any Canadian prime minister. Dependent on its only neighbor for trade and defense but protective of its sovereignty, independent foreign policy and distinct culture, Canada is in a difficult position. That difficulty is multiplied when America has a blustery, xenophobic, militaristic leader. And, since Canada’s politics already tilt more towards the dovish, internationalist, left than the United States, it is even harder still when the Canadian prime minister hails, as Trudeau does, from the center-left Liberal party. But Trudeau is succeeding at this delicate dance, with a combination of flattery and gentle rebukes. Call it the Trudeau Two-Step.

Trudeau’s remarks to the U.S. governors were characteristically subtle, avoiding Trump by name but targeting nationalistic, anti-trade rhetoric. This is a classic Two-Step move: maintain independence, but use mild, measured words. Trudeau has repeatedly censured the American president, but done so without hostility. Trump’s off-the-cuff tweeting presents a “new wrinkle in international diplomacy,” Trudeau said in June. He declared Canada “deeply disappointed” in the decision to extract the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on climate change. The day after Trump signed an executive order banning some Muslim refugees, Trudeau tweeted, “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.” A clearer contrast to Trump could not be made.

Trudeau has avoided confrontation even when Trump has attacked Canada. After Trump called Canada’s trade policies a “disgrace,” Trudeau responded with almost a parody of Canadian politeness, cautiously saying he would defend Canada’s interests: “The way to do that is to make arguments in a respectful fashion, based on facts, and work constructively and collaboratively with our neighbors." Trudeau has been swift to compliment the U.S. president, commending Trump’s listening skills, open-mindedness, and authenticity. He has even reached out to Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, taking her to a Broadway play - a play about Canadians helping Americans after 9/11.

Trump is historically unpopular in Canada, bringing down America’s reputation to unprecedented low levels. A poll recently cited by Newsweek had only 9 percent of Canadians saying they have a very favorable view of the United States. One of Trudeau’s opponents, Tom Mulcair, who leads the left-wing New Democratic Party, has called Trump a fascist and demanded Trudeau “stand up” and “denounce” the American president.

So why isn’t Trudeau using Canada’s stellar international reputation to lead the world’s anti-Trump forces?  

Well, Canada is dependent on the United States, in ways few other nations are. About 75 percent of Canadian exports go to the U.S. If Trump closed down the Canadian border, it would mean an instant weakening of the Canadian economy. (It would also harm the U.S. economy, of course, but not nearly as much. Only 18.3 percent of the U.S.’s exports are to Canada.) Canadian leaders are well aware of the power imbalance in the relationship. “We don’t have the luxury that the Germans have of an ocean between us,” a former Canadian diplomat told the New York Times. “And we don’t have a Plan B.”

Although Canadians’ distaste for Trump is strong, this is hardly the first time an American president has been strongly disliked. George W. Bush was almost as hated as Trump is. Jean Chrétien, like Trudeau, a Liberal who was prime minister during Bush’s presidency, had to navigate similarly choppy waters in Canada-U.S. relations during this period. Chrétien kept Canada out of the Iraq War, even while avoiding public antagonism with Bush.

Pierre Trudeau, father of Justin, was despised by Richard Nixon, who called him, a “son of a bitch… an egghead… asshole.” That led to Trudeau’s response, famous in Canada: “I’ve been called worse things by better people.” But Nixon’s resentment of Trudeau didn’t stop the Canadian prime minister from calling the president during Watergate to offer private support.

Sweet-talking an embattled Republican president while maintaining Canadian independence is a dance the younger Trudeau now seems to be mastering.

About the Author

Jordan Michael Smith is a Canadian-born writer living in New York. He has written for the Toronto Star, National Post, Globe and Mail, and many other publications. @JordanMSmith_

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.