When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and French President Emmanuel Macron met with President Trump in recent months, both hugged the president a lot, as if to demonstrate: We get along really, really well, no matter what.
Of course, both had few illusions about their newly found friend, but amid a global hunt for a working strategy in dealing with Trump, the “bromance” or “worst best friends” approach seemed worth a shot.
It’s fair to say now that the strategy has failed.
Since his state visit to Washington, Macron has warned twice that Trump’s moves could result in war: first, when Trump withdrew from the Iran deal, and again Thursday after the president imposed tariffs on close U.S. allies, including France. (The visit was only 37 days ago.) Trudeau, meanwhile, declared a “war on the American gherkin” Thursday, referring to pickles, and other products, in response to the same tariffs.
Both Macron and Trudeau voiced especially harsh criticism of Trump on Thursday, even while other leaders who have been more at odds with Trump remained somewhat less vocal. Both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May sent representatives to condemn the tariffs rather than make a personal statement.
Meanwhile, Macron ominously warned that “economic nationalism leads to war. This is exactly what happened in the 1930s.” His World War II reference could hardly have been less veiled. Trudeau similarly referred to dark times in history in his response, saying: “These tariffs are an affront to the long-standing security partnership between Canada and the United States, and in particular, to the thousands of Canadians who have fought and died alongside American comrades-in-arms.”
Macron and Trudeau’s harsh attacks after trying to play nice are not entirely unexpected, especially after Trump had ignored European advice and recently acknowledged what he thinks diplomacy is all about: “Everybody plays games,” the president said after canceling the summit with Kim Jong Un this month. (He later indicated that it might take place anyway.)
In Europe and among other U.S. allies, the double defeat of Macron on Iran and trade tariffs is resulting in even more uncertainty about how to approach the president. Is now the time to stop playing nice for real?
In interviews since Macron’s and Merkel’s respective D.C. visits, European officials have indicated that this may be the next strategy that’s up for debate.
At a summit in mid-May, European Council President Donald Tusk lashed out at Trump over his policies regarding Iran, Gaza, trade tariffs and North Korea.
“Looking at the latest decisions of Donald Trump, someone could even think: With friends like that, who needs enemies?” Tusk said “But frankly speaking, Europe should be grateful to President Trump. Because, thanks to him, we got rid of all the illusions. He has made us realize that if you need a helping hand, you will find one at the end of your arm.”
While European leaders have repeatedly stressed the need to become more self-reliant, it’s unclear to what lengths the continent is willing to go to confront Trump.
“Of course, one could say, ‘Okay, to avoid further damage we’ll accept those tariffs (without retaliating),’ but even that is risky because nobody knows whether that would be sufficient for Trump,” said Peter Beyer, coordinator of transatlantic relations for Merkel’s conservative party.
“We’re not used to his style, his language or his way of pressuring people. I’m opposed to that. It damages our transatlantic relationship of trust, but it’s real politics,” Beyer said.
The reality in this case is that Europe and Canada need the United States a whole lot. But the question after a year of frustration is now increasingly: How much — and for how long — do they still need Trump?
Trudeau already appears to be preparing for a time after him. “This is not about the American people,” he tweeted Thursday. “We have to believe that at some point their common sense will prevail. But we see no sign of that in this action today by the US administration.”