“Didn’t you guys burn down the White House?”
President Donald Trump asked this of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a May 25 phone call, the details of which were revealed yesterday by CNN. And judging from the bulging comments sections of Canada's mainstream media outlets, Canadian news junkies have been mining out the Canadian Encyclopedia ever since.
If we're going to pretend that Donald Trump's wry allusion to the War of 1812 actually matters—i.e. in the context of his willingness to threaten a trade war to leverage favourable deals with America's NAFTA and EU partners—then we'd better be clear about why. And we needn't bother appealing to the Canadian commentariat for such clarity, since most of them remain preoccupied with Trump's bullying tactics, historical inaccuracies and falsehoods, as usual. (An exception comes from veteran Maclean's journalist John Geddes, who rightly notes that it has been the fate of almost all Canadian prime ministers to have to navigate the protectionist whims of the U.S. hegemon. "Trump is only amplifying and distorting, in his peculiar way, what is really an old, recurring challenge," writes Geddes, "and a constant in Canadian foreign and economic policy.")
So let's be clear.
President Trump's one-liner about Canadians burning down the White House stands as a near-perfect distillation of his core political convictions—that nations are genuinely sovereign, none more so than the United States; that they can compete as well as cooperate, irrespective of whether they are friends like Canada or rivals like China; that national self-sufficiency in strategic resources is not an outdated ideal; that allies who do not pull their weight can be rebuked; that established trade protocols from Bretton Woods to the WTO count for nothing if they disadvantage the United States; and, above all, that the job of the U.S. president in 2018 is to make America great again. As Ohio State political scientist Randall Schweller has remarked, "Trump no longer sees the necessity of keeping allies happy at the expense of the American people, so he’s trying to solve the free-rider problem. The bumper-sticker line to U.S. allies: No more Uncle Sugar.”
It's hard to know whether Justin Trudeau was as blind-sided by Trump's protectionist threats as he appeared to be. Until last week, for example, he gave every impression that as host of the upcoming Group of Seven summit in Charlevoix, Quebec, he would be able to dominate the agenda—happily inscribing upon yet another international forum his ideas about climate, feminism and other progressive causes, while ostensibly managing the outlier Trump as something of a bête noire. Now, suddenly, it is clear that Trudeau and his like-minded allies in the G7 will spend a good portion of their weekend playing hardball with the U.S. president on trade—even if it means issuing a vapid concluding communiqué or, worse, announcing a failed summit.
In truth, Trudeau should not (and indeed may not) be surprised by any of these developments—any more than Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien, and even Stephen Harper were surprised when faced with similar stirrings of economic nationalism in Washington. Our current PM has been as adept as any world leader at rolling with the turbulence of the Trump maelstrom. Until last week when he came out swinging against the imposition of U.S. tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum, he seemed comfortable in the role of Trump Whisperer, to cite Campbell Clark's useful phrase. This was true as well of French president Emmanuel Macron, who has also endured some testy phone calls with President Trump this week and is arriving early in Canada to caucus with Trudeau about the trade crisis.
Perhaps Justin Trudeau has known since November 2016 that a day of reckoning on trade with the U.S. was inevitable, given Trump's unyielding America-first ideology, his take-no-prisoners negotiating style, and his open derision of NAFTA. What is certain is that when Trump scolded PM Trudeau for burning down the White House, he was signalling, with his inimitable economy of style, that the day of reckoning had arrived.