Until such time that Donald Trump is no longer president of the United States — and no one really has any idea when that’s going to be — the number one foreign policy priority of any Canadian government must be avoiding unnecessarily provoking the man. This is a hell of a situation for us to find ourselves in, but we’re in it. These are the facts on the ground, however weird they still seem. The president of the United States is, in general, thin-skinned, quick to take offence and prone to overreaction, even — especially? — against allies. That’s Trump 101. The situation is even more complicated when the president actually has a legitimate grievance.
Like, for instance, an ally that incessantly talks about being “back” and engaged and committed to the NATO alliance and rules-based international order while chronically underfunding its own armed forces. That would be Canada, in case you were wondering.
And yet, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who should have headed off to this week’s NATO summit in London with that one goal running in a ceaseless loop in his mind — “Don’t needle the president, don’t needle the president, don’t needle the president” — still somehow found a way to needle the president. On camera.
The video was shot inside Buckingham Palace on Tuesday, during a reception for NATO officials. In it, Trudeau, along with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron, are chatting over drinks. Not all of the video is audible, but Trudeau, who’s basically face-on to the camera, is clearly heard mocking the president for being late to events because he talks too much and for saying things that caused his team’s “jaws to drop to the floor.” (The prime minister helpfully mimed the jaw-dropping.) It’s not the worst thing in the world. They weren’t talking about NATO’s stockpiles of nuclear weapons or anything. But even though much of what’s said can’t be heard, it was clear enough that Trudeau was mocking Trump.
Clear enough to the president, at any rate. On Wednesday morning, during a press event, the president called Trudeau “two-faced,” and said though he thinks the PM is nice guy, “I called him out on the fact that he’s not paying two per cent (of GDP on defence, as Canada has promised) and I guess he’s not very happy about it.” The president added, “I can imagine he’s not that happy, but that’s the way it is.” He then announced he’d be leaving the summit early, skipping the concluding events he’d originally been expected to join.
Again, this incident in itself isn’t the end of the world. Trudeau got caught mouthing off, the president chided him. Not really the finest moment for either leader. But whereas in any other moment of history, you’d expect this to be the end of it, with Trump, you can’t make that bet. And Canada is currently counting on the U.S. to be in our corner.
We’ve counted on that for generations — Canadian over-reliance on the U.S. for national defence is a long-standing problem (this was the topic of my column in that long-ago era of … uh … this past Saturday). But right now in particular, we need to keep our relationship with Washington strong. The NAFTA successor is very, very close to being passed — and our economy needs that access to U.S. markets. Trump could easily throw a wrench or two into the final remaining steps if he was so inclined. Canada is counting on American diplomatic support in our ongoing dispute with China. Trump’s co-operation there cannot be counted on at the best of times, and certainly not after the PM gratuitously thumbs his nose at him. And then, of course, there is the extremely awkward truth that Trump is, on this issue, fundamentally right. His grasp of how NATO actually works seems as wrong as ever, but on the core principle of the matter — Canada massively under-invests in the military, even though we are among NATO’s richer countries — is spot on. No Canadian PM likes being reminded of this, mainly because it’s true. If you don’t believe me, ask the crew of the air force jet we had to scramble to London to bring Trudeau home after the one he’d flown in on broke down. (And that plane itself is the backup — the prime minister’s normal transport jet is out of service for repairs that won’t be complete until next summer, at the earliest.)
Trudeau’s gossiping (and now, broken plane) has, to absolutely no benefit, brought the president’s attention onto us and our chronic national defence freeloading, at a time when we need the U.S. more than is normally the case … and also at a time when the president’s own domestic political problems are no doubt giving him lots of good reasons to lash out at opponents abroad.
It was a completely unforced error, but one that doesn’t really seem all that our of character for our prime minister.