Though it is easy to view the ongoing trade spat between Canada and the United States as a personal feud between two vastly different leaders, neither man is an island. Both President Trump and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are products of political cultures that have studiously avoided treating the U.S.-Canada relationship with the respect it deserves. The present dysfunction is a tragedy, but only as an extreme caricature of a partnership that’s always been broadly tragic.
Trump has more personal ties to Canada than any president since Herbert Hoover, whose mother was born in Ontario. Trump’s German grandfather lived in the Yukon territory for three years in the late 19th century, a fact Trudeau used in June as a pretext for a slightly cheeky gift to the president during the now-infamous Group of Seven summit in Quebec. There are Trump hotels in Toronto and Vancouver, and in his past life, the president repeatedly visited Canada, and had even met at least one former prime minister (Trudeau’s father, Pierre Trudeau — documented in another gift).
Yet it does not seem any of this has persuaded Trump to see Canada as anything beyond one more scheming foreign rival. The president has offered little indication that he views Canada as a place relevant to U.S. economic or strategic interests — let alone uniquely so. It is, thus, a relationship that he believes can be treated flippantly, or even cruelly, without much guilt.
During the Oval Office announcement last month of a trade deal with Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, Trump spoke of Canada’s absence from his post-North American Free Trade Agreement order as a passing detail, at one point implying that U.S. trade with Canada was “smaller” and therefore less relevant than the country’s relationship with Mexico. In reality, the annual Canadian trade relationship is worth more than $50 billion more.
Such disinterest may also owe something to the fact that Canada’s ostentatiously progressive leader has become a stock villain in much of the right-wing media the president consumes. To the extent the American right is interested in Canada at all, it has long been as a one-dimensional stereotype of a pathetic, socialist welfare state.
Trudeau, for his part, has been more than happy to lean into such cliches. He rarely gives a speech that does not begin from the smug premise that his country exists as a liberal counterweight to the United States, reflecting the Canadian left’s broad consensus that all patriotism must flow from contrast with its neighbor to the south.
The prime minister’s personal background, meanwhile, suggests an even thinner understanding or appreciation of the United States than Trump has of Canada. Unlike his father — and unusually for a man of his class — Trudeau never went to school in the United States, and seems to not have spent any significant amount of time there. If Trudeau has ever been one-tenth as curious about U.S. history or politics as he is about, say, Quebec nationalism, he’s given scant indication of it.
Not that the opposite extreme would have necessarily yielded better results. The most Americanized member of Trudeau’s cabinet, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, worked for years as a U.S.-based journalist and political pundit. She now finds no apparent conflict in negotiating with the White House one day, and acting as Canada’s leading #Resistance intellectual the next.
In Washington last June, Freeland gave a tendentious speech on the dangers of “angry populism” that predictably enraged the president. Given the bad press, her decision this week to participate in Tina Brown’s annual “Women in the World” summit was an appalling act of vanity. Freeland’s panel was entitled “Taking on the Tyrant,” a category of leader in which the event explicitly included Trump.
Freeland possessed at least enough self-awareness last August to note the irony in defending a trade agreement both her own party and her politician mother opposed ferociously when first proposed. Then, as now, the Canadian left’s dominant understanding of the United States was a salivating monster eager to swallow Canadian independence and ruin its social programs. Whatever changed thinking on free trade that the Liberal Party has undergone since then, it was clearly more informed by material outcomes than evolution in ideology.
Already, one hears much about how the Trump administration “just proves the need” for Canada to trade more with Europe, or to deepen ties to China, or other ideological hobbyhorses disguised as national interest. Progressive Canadian nationalists never need much pushing to find the bright side of a breakdown in Canadian-U.S. relations, since it provides such convenient pretext to pursue an anti-American agenda that was always the goal anyway.
That Canada and the United States will eventually slap together some sort of deal seems certain. If the Trump White House can get to “yes” with Mexico — a country the president has spent the last two years portraying as Public Enemy No. 1 — then there is scant reason to bet against an agreement with Canada.
Yet, it will almost certainly not be a deal that reflects any honest effort to maximize the shared Canadian-U.S. interest, or otherwise pursue deeper bi-national integration as a self-evident good. Instead, two suspicious leaders will do their best to protect their favored domestic special interests as much as they can, and help further consolidate the infrastructure of North America’s preposterous status quo.
The two most similar countries on Earth will continue to treat each other with skepticism and distrust, with the movement of their goods and people more curtailed than is found in the European nations that were grinding each other into bloody sand mere decades ago.