It is not just the centuries-long relationship that the president is wrecking it is an international order of democracies, writes author and professor Margaret MacMillan
What has just happened to Canada?
Bewilderment. Fear. Anger. Hurt. Canadians today are struggling to understand what Donald Trump has just done to us.
We know the United States can be a bit strange at times and we have had our tricky moments. In the 19th century we didnt much like the loud annexationist voices south of the border, or American support for Sinn Fin adventurers who thought by seizing the Canadian colonies they could force Britain out of Ireland. More recently our relations during the Vietnam war were strained because many Canadians opposed it, and said so, and Canada sheltered draft dodgers. President Lyndon Johnson once took our much smaller prime minister Lester Pearson by the lapels and shook him after the Canadian made a mildly critical speech at Temple University. President Nixon famously did not like Pierre Trudeau, whom he saw as a quiche-eating, sandal-wearing liberal.
But, until now, we have got on pretty well. There was a temporary coolness when our government declined the invitation to join the coalition that invaded and occupied Iraq, but we did send troops to Afghanistan.
Trudeau the elder, who had to deal with a bruised and truculent US during the 1970s, once said that Canada slept next to an elephant. Managing the relationship with a giant neighbour has been central to our foreign policy for more than a century. Trade and investment as well as people have flowed back and forth across the border, and the US is by far our biggest trading partner. And we are the Americans, although most of them dont know it. We welcomed the free trade agreement of the 1990s and its successor, Nafta.
During the second world war, and then the cold war, the two countries worked closely together. Canada was a founding member of Nato and a strong supporter of the new international institutions such as the United Nations, the IMF and the World Bank the Americans were setting up. Canadians fought in Korea alongside Americans. The early warning line for Soviet bombers and rockets was in the Canadian Arctic, and Norad, for the air and maritime defence of North America, is a completely integrated operation.
There is much more to the relationship than security and trade. Canadians see the Americans as cousins. We love the same sports: Canadians are crazy about baseball and basketball, and our beloved game of hockey is played all over the US. For generations, Canadians have moved south in search of jobs, education and fame. A large part of Canada heads for Florida, California and Hawaii in the winter to get away from the snow. When the US endures disasters we sympathize. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 Canadians opened their airfields and homes to the thousands of American planes and travellers who were stranded here. (In what seems to have been a vain attempt to win over the Trumps, Justin Trudeau took Ivanka and Jared to a cheery, feelgood musical about what happened when a plane bound for New York found itself in a remote Newfoundland village.)
Our values, or so we used to think, are much the same. Yet over the past few decades a gap has been slowly opening. If we could vote in American presidential elections we would be around 80% Democrat. A recent poll showed that 70% of us disapproved of Donald Trumps performance as president. Canadians by and large have no problem with same-sex marriage or abortion. We are legalizing marijuana. We have a comprehensive welfare system and what Americans, particularly on the right, call socialized medicine. We dont get their reverence for guns. Our founding principle was not life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness but peace, order and good government.
We have nevertheless worked hard to nurture the relationship with the US. Canadians have always known far more about the Americans than vice versa which is why, among other things, we have tended to do well in trade negotiations and disputes. Americans tend to think we are just like them and so dont bother to learn much about us. We have tended to prefer it that way until now.
When Donald Trump was elected, our government, as its predecessors have always done, set out to establish friendly links with the new administration. As it became clear that it was difficult to find whom to talk to in the constantly churning cast of characters around Trump, we redoubled our efforts and made them bipartisan. The Trudeau government brought in the former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney to advise them. Trudeau himself and his foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, made a point of getting alongside the new president and his advisers. The first Trump-Trudeau meeting seemed to go well enough but Trudeau held his ground in the famous Trump handshake. The Canadian prime minister is younger and much more handsome. Ageing alpha males dont usually like that.
And this one clearly didnt. In the past few months increasingly testy growls have been emanating from the White House. Canada has a huge trade surplus with the US. (No matter that it doesnt.) Canada cheats. Canada is a security threat which is why the US has to put tariffs in Canadian steel and aluminium. The Canadian government has politely disagreed. And Trudeau, in his now notorious press conference as Air Force One was heading to Singapore, repeated what he had already said: it is insulting to impose what are probably illegal tariffs on specious grounds.
It is Trumps reaction that should have us all extremely worried Americans included. Their country is very powerful but power does not last for ever and the US is facing challenges, from China in particular. The US needs friends and partners. So when Trump calls the chief minister of one of his countrys most reliable friends very dishonest and weak he is clearly not putting the interests of the United States first. His sorry advisers have piled in, so eager to please the boss that they dont care what further damage they do. Peter Navarro, the self-proclaimed expert on China who doesnt speak much Chinese, talks about a stab in the back. (Where have we heard that one before?) Larry Kudlow the economist with the record of wrong predictions and the one who used to oppose Trumps tariffs exclaims that disagreeing with Trump on the eve of the summit with Kim Jong-un is undermining. Kim must not see American weakness. So that is now the role of American allies to shower praise on the Great Leader just as his cabinet did in that shameful televised meeting last June.
The Trump administration is throwing away with both hands the soft power, the moral authority and the network of relationships that have served the US well. Trump himself seems far more comfortable with authoritarian regimes such as Russia, the Philippines or Saudi Arabia than he does with older friends such as Britain, France or Germany. The G7 was a useful meeting place for like-minded nations. It is probably done for. What next? Nato? The IMF? World Bank? World Trade Organization? The United States is shattering an international order economic but also political that has served the world and the US itself well. Poor Canada and poor world too.
- Margaret MacMillan is an author and a professor of international history at the University of Oxford