Chairman's Desk

Trudeau’s ‘hot mic’ video overshadows a crucial meeting for NATO

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on December 8, 2019.

On Wednesday, video emerged of Justin Trudeau, accompanied by a group of world leaders at a NATO summit in London, poking fun at President Donald Trump. In the video, the prime minister made a jibe about Trump’s penchant for impromptu press conferences and his staff’s apparent dismay at yet another off-the-cuff pronouncement.

Since then, there has been much carry on over Trudeau’s comments. Some are outraged, declaring that it’s foolish for the PM to be snickering behind the back of our largest trading partner. Others argue that the comments are merely the predictable outcome of Trump’s own bullying and standoffishness.

Canadians can debate whether it’s wise for their prime minister to be seen criticizing the president while, among many issues that face our two countries, NAFTA 2.0 has yet to pass through Congress.

The reality is that despite the irritant of impeachment and given the dearth of a strong Democratic challenger in the 2020 election, Donald Trump is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Even if Trump does leave office, Justin Trudeau and his successors will find themselves facing a Republican Party irrevocably shaped in his image.

That’s why many, especially those who have worked tirelessly to manage the bilateral relationship, found Trump’s retaliatory comments — in which he called Trudeau “two-faced,” unhelpful.

But despite the frenzied response to the hot mic moment, it’s unlikely that even one of the politicians caught in that moment will be personally set back by the video. Not Trudeau, whose constituents — even those outside his base — loathe Trump and all he represents. Not French President Emmanuel Macron, whose countrymen were no doubt incensed by Trump’s jab earlier in the day about “giving” ISIS fighters to France.

Most of all, the video will certainly not hurt Boris Johnson. The U.K. prime minister is contesting an election next week in a country where 64 per cent of Britons disapprove of Trump’s leadership. Over the past few weeks, Labour and Liberal Democrat opponents have tied Johnson to Trump, raising the spectre of a Johnson-Trump alliance that would sell off the National Health Service and veer the country to the hard-right.

So, to be seen poking fun at Trump in a collegial manner with his more liberal Canadian, Dutch and French counterparts, can only help Johnson’s prospects on Thursday.

But here is the rub. The reality of that moment and the tensions therein reveal the cracks in the alliance as a whole. More importantly, the situation is symptomatic of the divided world in which we now live.

Governments, the world over, have retreated from a global-seeking consensus toward a form of selfish nationalism, which has at its core one question: “What is in it for me?”

Even NATO — a foundational alliance whose existence has been central to the guarantee of the post-Cold War era of peace and prosperity — is not immune to this impulse. Say what you will about the current state of the organization, there’s no doubt that for 70 years it has served as an important forum for governments to publicly declare their mutual support and shared ideals.

As it stands now, the organization is treated less as an important example of multilateral co-operation and more like a communal piggy bank, financial support to which is only reluctantly offered and only to avoid the scorn of President Trump.

In the end, the real cost of that “hot mic” moment is that it has overshadowed what should have been a crucial summit. Consider the timing: Russian interference is resurgent, the leadership of the EU is in question as Chancellor Merkel faces retirement, and far-right governments have swept across eastern Europe.

As NATO leaders were meeting in Buckingham Palace, conflict persisted in eastern Ukraine and the country’s political establishment continued to reel from revelations that emerged from American impeachment proceedings.

What’s more, at the meeting on Wednesday, Hungary’s foreign minister announced that the authoritarian government of Viktor Orban will block Ukraine’s admission to NATO — yet another victory for Vladimir Putin.

You could, of course, be forgiven for having missed such an important development. After all, there were far more important videos to discuss.