Earlier this year at Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump’s Palm Beach resort, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney serenaded the president with a rendition of “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.” It’s not clear that Trump caught the symbolism, but students of Canadian history know that Mulroney was alluding to a famous moment in his own career, in 1985, when he and President Ronald Reagan sang the classic Celtic tune together during a St. Patrick’s Day celebration in Quebec City. Mulroney and Reagan had a warm friendship and struck a free trade agreement in 1988 that served as the precursor for NAFTA six years later.
Mulroney is justly proud of his baritone voice, but he doesn’t sing to American presidents just for fun. His message to Trump was clear: NAFTA grew out of a deep friendship between Canada and the United States, and Trump should honor it. But Trump has threatened to do the opposite. He was considering an executive order to withdraw from NAFTA, but decided against it, instead insisting he would “bring NAFTA up to date through renegotiation.” Trump also recently targeted Canada over lumber imports and milk prices, prompting talk of a “trade war.”
Why does Trump have it out for his friendly neighbors to the north? That’s exactly it: Canada has tried to make friends with Trump, while savvier nations have stood up to the new bully in the White House—and been rewarded for it.
Mulroney was sent to Mar-a-Lago in February at the request of the current prime minister, Justin Trudeau, for whom Trump’s ascension has posed a unique set of problems. While Trudeau is a cosmopolitan liberal, and thus ideologically opposed to almost everything Trump stands for, the Canadian economy is dependent on trade with the superpower to the south. In order to defuse the threat of Trump’s protectionist platform, Trudeau has decided not to challenge the American president directly, but rather win him over with careful, even complimentary, rhetoric. Trudeau has tried, in his words, to “engage with [Trump] to try and work to achieve beneficial outcomes.”
This has meant attempting to cultivate a personal relationship, as when he invited Trump to attend a Canadian show on Broadway about welcoming foreigners (Trump couldn’t attend, so his daughter Ivanka went instead). It’s also meant avoiding criticism of Trump at all costs. “I’ve learned that he listens,” Trudeau said in a Bloomberg Businessweek interview published Wednesday. “As politicians, we’re very, very much trained to say something and stick with it. Whereas he has shown that if he says one thing and then actually hears good counterarguments or good reasons why he should shift his position, he will take a different position, if it’s a better one, if the arguments win him over.”
Trudeau’s attempt to forge a connection with Trump has generally been celebrated in Canada, with some dissent from left-wing critics. Writer Derrick O’Keefe of Ricochet accused Trudeau of practicing “Quisling diplomacy,” or collaborating with the enemy. Tom Parkin of the Toronto Sun noted that Mulroney—who has been under an ethical cloud in recent years for controversial business dealings, and sits on all sorts of corporate boards—might have too many conflicts of interest to make a good diplomat. (Although, given Trump’s own open embrace of kleptocracy, maybe Mulroney is the ideal ambassador to Trump’s Washington.)
But these moral critiques have been rendered moot by the practical fact that Trudeau’s tactics have clearly failed. Trudeau tried to play nice, and Trump still decided to make Canada the key target for his protectionist foreign policy.
“People don’t realize Canada’s been very rough on the United States,” Trump said on Tuesday, while surrounded by farmers (whose business has been made “very difficult” by Canada, he tweeted). “Everyone thinks of Canada as being wonderful and so do I, I love Canada, but they’ve outsmarted our politicians for many years.” Trump said this by way of explanation for his plan, announced Monday, to impose a 20 percent tax on softwood lumber from Canada. A reporter asked him, “Do you fear a trade war with Canada?” Trump’s reply: “No, not at all.”
Now, Trump is on the verge of revising NAFTA. That would affect both Canada and Mexico, of course, but there’s a significant difference between how the two countries have handled Trump.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has been notably tough with his American counterpart. In late January, when Trump insisted he would keep his campaign promise to make Mexico pay for a border wall, Nieto cancelled their planned meeting. Now, in a significant retreat, Trump says Mexico will pay for the wall “eventually” and “in some form”; American taxpayers will pay the upfront costs, if the proposal ever passes congressional muster. Trump’s capitulation is partly an acknowledgement of political reality, but also a testament to Nieto’s firmness in making that reality clear. (Nieto is under increasing nationalist pressure ahead of next year’s presidential election, for which he’s not eligible.)
This lesson of standing up to Trump extends to other world leaders. Chinese President Xi Jinping got Trump to stop accusing China of being a currency manipulator by leveraging his need for an ally against North Korea. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull stood up to Trump’s bullying over a “dumb” Obama-era refugee resettlement agreement, which Trump later agreed to abide by.
Trudeau tried to appease Trump—and got a potential trade war to thank for his efforts.
“Trump has escalated what were modest and longstanding frictions,” Politico’s Adam Behsudi argued on Tuesday, “into a full-blown trade dispute largely because Canada is an easy target and doesn’t have as many weapons to fight back. “Canada is an easy villain,” Laura Dawson, of the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, told Behsudi. “They cannot retaliate with the force of a China or a Mexico. It’s not like Canada is going to open up the border and let a whole bunch of Central Americans into the United States. So Canada is a pretty safe target.”
All of which suggests Trudeau took exactly the wrong approach to Trump. Like a stereotypical schoolyard bully, the president respects only those who fight back. Instead of singing to Trump, Mulroney should have barked at him.