Chairman's Desk

Convulsing America elephant will test Justin Trudeau’s agility

The Trudeau government has navigated the challenges well thus far, but a Trump presidency fundamentally alters the waters.

It’s perhaps ironic that it is an iconic quote by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s father that sums up the situation that confronts him today.

Pierre Trudeau once remarked that living next to the United States was ‘in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly or even-tempered is the beast ナ one is affected by every twitch and grunt.’

Trudeau’s relationship with former President Barack Obama was often compared by the media to Brian Mulroney’s infamously close relationship with Ronald Reagan; his relationship with Hillary Clinton, once cast as the inevitable successor to Obama, was no less warm.

Together, this promised a golden era of Liberal and Democratic rule in North America that would include increased environmental regulation, a focus on growing the social safety net, and, increasingly, aligned foreign policies that would emphasize brokering international peace rather than imposing it.

Friday’s inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States has suddenly, abruptly, rudely ruptured that idyllic vision.

The elephant isn’t so much twitching as having full-body convulsions.

Following its election in 2015, the Liberal Party mapped out a four-year guide to re-election. They did this thinking they would have an American counterpart marching in lockstep on major policies.

Instead, the Liberals now face a president with plans antithetical to core components of their platform.

That said, the Trudeau government has shown it understands the enormity of the challenges it faces. The irascible St’phane Dion has been shuffled out of the global affairs portfolio in favour of Chrystia Freeland who, in addition to having performed well at international trade, knows the United States well. A team specifically focused on U.S./Canada policy, led by Brian Clow, the very capable former chief of staff to Freeland has been drafted. High-level staff members have been dispatched to Trump Tower to meet with Trump administration officials.

And yet the enormity of the challenge has only begun to present itself; a challenge that will come in three principal forms.

The first is environmental policy. Carbon pricing grew increasingly popular with the Democratic establishment as the U.S. election approached. It is very possible that increased environmental taxation would have been a top priority for Hillary Clinton. But that reality does not exist: President Trump is uncompromisingly opposed to any increase in business regulation for environmental purposes, a position at odds with the Trudeau government’s decision to enact carbon pricing.

With a president who opposes environmental policies he sees as harming business and who favours reducing taxes, the Trudeau government could be forced to reconsider its commitment to a policy that will handicap Canadian businesses. Already, there has been pressure from our business community wary of the challenge.

The second challenge surrounds foreign policy. Again, the Trudeau government had found itself largely aligned with the less aggressive positioning of the Democratic establishment. A reluctance to be drawn into commitments on regional conflicts, support for increased consensus-building, and support of international institutions defined both the Obama and Trudeau administrations.

As Trump moves into the Oval Office, that harmony moves out. Even during the few, short months following the election, he has demonstrated a belligerent, anti-establishment approach. NAFTA, the European Union, and the UN find themselves under attack by a president who dismisses them as either useless or malicious. For a multilateralist like Justin Trudeau, the problem will be standing up for such institutions while trying to remain in the Trump government’s favour.

Finally, personality may itself be a challenge. On the international stage, Trudeau has been framed as an inspiring figure, the personification of a new generation of hope and promise.

Trump, on the other hand, has been positioned as a throwback to a time when America was meaner, smaller, more insular and selfish.

Should that narrative take hold, Trudeau will risk developing an adversarial relationship with a president who has demonstrated time and again that he has not only a fragile ego coupled with a narcissistic personality, but who takes up all the available oxygen in a room.

The Trudeau government has navigated the challenges well thus far, but a Trump presidency fundamentally alters the waters. No longer are we in an age of North American liberal ascendancy; instead, many of the underpinnings of such an agenda are under direct attack.

The ability to adjust to real life circumstances while keeping strategic focus is at the core of the challenge of governing. In 2009, Stephen Harper and Jim Flaherty, elected on — and believing in — a platform of strict fiscal conservatism, found themselves deciding to run a deficit. They adapted to circumstance for the good of the country. Whether Trudeau can do the same may decide the fate of his government in 2019.

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on January 20, 2017.

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