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The ONW Salon: Canada/US Relations - Iron Fist or Velvet Glove? 

Justin Trudeau has taken a distinctly soft-pedal approach to relations with Donald Trump so far, including a "charm offensive" meeting between Canadian and US political aides. Meanwhile, Germany's Der Spiegel Magazine is calling for that country to prepare to treat Trump as a hostile dictator. Which direction should Canada be taking?  Richard Mahoney, John Capobianco and Tom Parkin weigh in.



Tom Parkin:

Should Canada’s PM disavow Trump’s racist policies, as was done by Angela Merkle and has been further promoted in a Der Spiegel opinion piece written by its Editor-in-Chief Klaus Brinkbäumer?


Trump is an out-of-control President and a threat to our values and freedoms. Over the weekend, he wrote about a “so-called” judge who had the temerity to make a legal decision in opposition to his political diktats. That’s right, he criticized the free operation of independent courts. Independent courts are a cornerstone of democracy and a bulwark against authoritarianism. Is Trump a fascist? I am increasingly leaning toward “yes.”

Canada doesn’t live in a bubble. We’ve had Canadian jobs in a Regina steel mill threatened by Trump’s “only U.S. steel” diktat. We’ve had Canadians lose their Nexus privileges. We are not really sure if a Canadian who has travelled to Iran or Syria will be detained and questioned in the U.S. – that’s happened to the former PM of Norway! Will there be a new Maher Arar – someone snatched in a U.S. airport, send to a black prison and tortured?

This is only in a few weeks. Wait until Trump launches his trade attack on Mexico. Puts out a law crushing unions. Goes nuts about China. Helps the neo-fascist National Front in France. Or launches the next war in the Middle East.

Will this affect Canadians? Absolutely yes. It will takes away from our world and the general acceptance of open, democratic values.

If Justin Trudeau had campaigned on compromising our values for short-term economic benefit, he would still be leader of the third party. Canada is a democratic and economic success because we stand on our values. We can’t let those values be eroded by Trump. Values matter most when they become inconvenient.

Canada should be working with like-minded national and political leaders to limit Trump’s powers, to frustrate his success, to hinder his aggression, to constrain his abuses. That Justin Trudeau does not have the moral strength to do this surprises me less and less every day.


Richard Mahoney:

I was just about ready to agree with Tom's analysis on what Trump has done and the threat he presents to the globe, until I saw his unfortunate and perhaps inevitable partisan shot at Prime Minister Trudeau in his last sentence.

This is not a reality TV show. It is a complex, multi-layered match of geo-diplomacy. Reaching a conclusion at this point on how the PM has handled it is a little ridiculous. This game is still in the first inning, at best.

That said, I think the topic of our debate is just about the most important tactical question facing Canadians, and their governments, these days. Not that there aren't many other issues that are critical, but how to handle Trump, how to deal with Trump and how to manage the relationship with the United States as a whole "trumps" them all in the short and medium term.

Climate change and putting a price on carbon is hugely important, but made all the more complex by the erratic presence of Trump and a Republican Congress. How to deal with migration and the plight of the world's 60 million refugees is pretty fundamental to whom we are as a nation, but that job just got more complicated because of Trump's Muslim ban/travel ban. This reality faces all countries, but impacts us the most on a daily, practical basis.

Some say stay under the radar, as Canada has almost always done, and let Trump focus his trade aggressions on Mexico and we will be ok in the end. Others such as Germany's Der Spiegel say everyone needs to fight fire with fire. Its cover story painted the challenge to the rest of the world in graphic terms.

I would say that the Prime Minister has played this smartly so far - he shuffled his cabinet to put his best minister in place in Chrystia Freeland, who has a deep understanding of the U.S., the trade file, and the impact those policies can have on the jobs of middle class Canadians.

The charm offensive that is referred to is simply smart tactics - making sure Canada has the reach and access It needs in Congress and the White House to give us tools to blunt the worst of Trump and maintain Canada's deep economic and cultural relationships, which go far beyond the occupant of the White House.

In addition, the institution of a "war room" in the Prime Minister's office staffed by professionals whose every moment will be sent reviewing all the information coming from our own and other sources sounds like a smart move that will give Trudeau the tools he and the government need to function in this new world.

Finally, when Trudeau needed to show strong, principled Canadian leadership, he did so, with his quick assertion that Canada would remain a sanctuary for refugees in contrast to the Muslim ban.

This has all happened in a couple of weeks. So it looks to me like an intelligent, measured but principled start. That is a good thing.


John Capobianco:

I don't think it has to be a velvet glove or iron fist approach - international relations and by extension diplomacy is not black or white. Especially when you are dealing with the U.S.  I actually think Tom's suggested approach is wrong and it's why the NDP has always had an issue with voters when it comes to credibility on the international scene. As our largest trading partner and military support, it would be foolish, not to mention devastating, for us to have hostile relations with the Americans.

In every election that I can remember, there is always a debate/discussion about whether the government of the day had solid or poor relations with the U.S. - as was the case in the recent election campaign, when both the Liberals and the NDP complained that former PM Harper was too hard on President Obama. In fact, the PM made it a campaign promise to build stronger relations with the U.S. and he did so, albeit with the wrong President.

But I would tend to side with Richard's point of view on this issue - although I still believe the jury is out on whether it is going to work or not. The first signs have been positive with the cabinet shuffle to reflect the sensitivities of the new administration and the reaching out to the various players in President Trump's inner circle. Even the recent visits by the Defense Minister and the upcoming visit to the U.S. by the Finance Minister show signs of dealing with the relations in a cautious approach.

This will not doubt be the most talked about relationship amongst the chattering class and pundits, but all Canadians want is to make sure they are safe and secure and have meaningful employment opportunities. They don't care necessarily how it is done but want their government achieve these goals - either by a velvet glove or an iron fist.


Tom Parkin:

My friends, I know it is a specialty to belittle and patronize those who believe politics should be based on human values. I do not take it personally, but I suspect neither is it an effective argument with Canadians.

All I am suggesting is that rock-star feminist PM Trudeau could at least show the same courage and gumption as Merkle, Hollande and many, many other leaders who have condemned Trump’s travel ban. I don’t see why they can do it and our oh-so-progressive PM cannot. I don’t think history will judge PM Trudeau well on this point.

Donald Trump is a man who did not have a moment to publicly comment or offer any condolences to the families affected by the racist murders of six Canadians in Quebec – murders apparently committed by someone who was a big fan of his. Most moral humans would take that moment to absolutely condemn, separate from and repudiate such racist violence. Not this man.

But he has time to berate the media for not drawing one-dimensional stories about terrorists and independent “so-called” judges.

Time to work together with other democratic countries to limit this horrendous racist. To stand our ground, not cede it.


Richard Mahoney:

To be clear, no one is belittling anyone. We are just disagreeing on an apparently early and overly partisan conclusion that you seem to have reached two weeks into the Trump era.

While John is right to note that the Prime Minister built a strong relationship with President Obama, as he promised to do, he is not right to say he built it with the "wrong President". The United States has one President at a time. They elected Barack Obama, so Trudeau deftly dealt with him.

And now Donald Trump has been in the job for a couple of weeks, so the Prime Minister will deal with him, just as he promised he would no matter whom Americans elected. He smartly refrained from interfering in the U.S. election, despite the calls from the NDP and others to attack Trump during the campaign.

All that said, and back to the question at hand: iron fist or velvet glove.

No doubt there will be some very serious consequences of the Trump Presidency for Canada and the rest of the world. There is so much we don't know - how will trade agreements such as NAFTA be renegotiated? Will there be some form of carve-out possible for Canada? What about increased "buy America" provisions - can Canada achieve some form of equal treatment or will we have to resort to "buy Canada" provisions in retaliation? And who gets hurt in that fight?

I suspect we won't know the right answers for some time, but I predict there will be days when we, as a country and through our governments and leaders, will have to be tough, and use the so-called iron fist. I am sure there will also be days, and issues, where we are best to maintain and emphasize our close economic, cultural and family ties. We will need to educate American decision makers and influencers in a much more pronounced way than we have had to in the past - benign neglect has generally worked in our favour down there - in order to avoid the worst of it. And on days like that, we will need all the effort we can muster to appeal to the mutual interests of Americans and Canadians. We will need a deep understanding of issues and relationships at all levels of the U.S. government, state governments and in business, labour and civil society.

This will be a complex battle, fought on many levels simultaneously. It will be to our benefit as we fight it to remind ourselves of this: our disagreements will be with the Trump administration. Our historic economic and cultural ties are with the American people.

It will take tough, shrewd and principled leadership to chart these waters. Some fist, some glove. I think, and hope, we are up to it as a country.  


John Capobianco:

Tom, I think it is big-ly (er, I mean big league) unfair to say that we are "belittling or patronizing" those who believe politics should be based on human values. The discussion we are having is how best to deal with a U.S. President who is not playing by the rules by which those before him have played.

There is nothing surprising about what President Trump is doing - he literally campaigned on everything he has signed by way of Executive Orders and whether you agree or disagree, that is the reality and that is how he will likely govern for the next four years. It will incumbent upon our PM to make the relationship work for the sake of jobs and security.

As I said above and in earlier submissions on these pages, I gave PM Trudeau positive marks for the work his government has done to date by not reacting in a knee-jerk way to every move the President makes, but to look at the relationship from a more holistic perspective.

President Trump dominated the Republican primaries, the election and now as President we have to work with that. Which doesn't mean we have to agree or be in lockstep with his actions, but it does mean we have to work with him, and I do believe our government has its work cut out over the next four years.

It is in all of our best interests to ensure this relationship works.


Richard Mahoney is a lawyer with deep experience in politics and governance.  He is a former senior advisor to the Rt. Hon Paul Martin, a former Campaign Chair and President of the Ontario Liberal Party. John Capobianco is a Senior Partner and National Public Affairs Lead at FleishmanHillard. He has been a Conservative strategist with over 30 years of political activism at all three levels, including as a former federal Conservative candidate. Tom Parkin is a veteran NDP strategist and a frequent commentator on national issues. 







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