Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, has been the suave man of global politics ever since he swept to power in 2015. Emmanuel Macron may be trying to give him a run for his money in the cool stakes, but few would say he has come close to taking Trudeau’s crown.
Now, however, the Canadian charmer appears to be casting himself in a different role, donning the guise of the strongman in the trade battle with Donald Trump. So can Trudeau beat the US president at his own game, or will he be forced into retreat by his brutish southern neighbour?
For a while it seemed as if the G7 summit, hosted by Trudeau in Quebec at the weekend, had gone rather better than expected. President Trump might have sulked and bragged his way into the meeting, surprising everyone with his call for Russia’s readmission, but in the end it appeared that the seven world leaders had reached a sort of consensus. They might have agreed to disagree about climate issues, but on Russia and trade a form of words was found to which everyone could sign up.
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However, when Trudeau used a press conference on Saturday (after Trump had departed the G7 in favour of his meeting with Kim Jong-un in Singapore) to indicate that he would retaliate against US tariffs on aluminium and steel, Trump went ballistic – as Trump does. America’s endorsement of the G7 communique was rescinded, while Trudeau found himself on the receiving end of a Trumpian Twitter barrage. All of a sudden, the pair are firmly at loggerheads.
White House advisors followed up with further attacks. Peter Navarro told Fox News that Trudeau would find a “special place in hell”, while Larry Kudlow, Director of the US National Economic Council, claimed Trudeau had double crossed the US, warning that “Potus is not going to let a Canadian prime minister push him around…” Trump has begun the new week with further attacks, not only targeted at Trudeau but at European leaders too (notably returning to the subject of Nato funding, where he is – as it happens – on better ground than with trade).
Given that Canada had already announced retaliatory tariffs against the US at the end of last month, Trudeau’s advisers are right to say that the comments made by the prime minister on Saturday really just repeated what he has said before. Trump’s decision to withdraw his signature from the G7 communique was plainly, therefore, a piqued response to being – as he saw it – attacked by Trudeau in public. And while it was astonishing by the standards of usual diplomacy, it was also typical of this president.
In that context, it is reasonable to assume that Trudeau took a calculated risk by his remarks, knowing that an explosive reaction from a mid-transit Trump was eminently possible. It is also not difficult to understand the reasoning.
Standing up to Trump is, for Trudeau, likely to be vital to his chances of re-election in next year’s federal elections, for which recent opinion polls have not looked overly promising. Going on the attack against a bully who is regarded unfavourably by most Canadians is, in short, almost certainly a vote winner.
What’s more, Trudeau will have known that in any fight against Trump – and for Canadians, US tariffs are especially worrisome – his allies in Europe (and Mexico for that matter) will have his back.
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He also knows that, despite the bombast, the most likely way to get Trump to the negotiating table on trade is to avoid the kind of “meekness and mildness” that the US president accused him of showing during the G7 talks.
After all, much as Trump wishes to present his upcoming talks with North Korea’s leadership as a triumph of American diplomacy, there is a much stronger case for arguing that it has been Kim’s manoeuvres – including his combative part in the pair’s extraordinary social media exchanges – that have brought about the potential for denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula; and perhaps even the slow modernisation of the North on terms that suit the latter and that will enable him to maintain his hold on power (not least by showing his generals that he has not been forced into talks).
Similarly, while relations between the US and Russia are not consistently positive it is plain that Trump respects Vladimir Putin, that other renowned strongman-style leader.
Canadians may be stereotyped for their polite manners and mild attitude to life; but for Trudeau, standing up to Trump makes sense – both from a diplomatic perspective, and for domestic, political reasons. Now he only has to hold his nerve (and his nose).