There’s an odd disconnect between Justin Trudeau’s industrious tour of small-town and mid-sized Canada this week and the events rattling the world outside.
Politically the contrast is probably healthy. On Friday, Donald Trump will proclaim his faith in forgotten ordinary Americans. While he does that, Prime Minister Trudeau is wise to catch up with ordinary Canadians.
Nor is Trudeau ignoring Brexit or the fate of Angela Merkel’s government while he takes questions from voters about military equipment contracts or soaring energy bills. Indeed, if Stéphane Dion comes out of his hole and sees his shadow, the ex-foreign minister — reluctantly recast as the likely ambassador to both the EU and Germany — could be on the next flight out of town to help deal, to the extent any Canadian can, with the fallout from Britain’s historic choice.
And since Trudeau has decided to let reporters pry the details of his Christmas vacation with the Aga Khan from him one tidbit at a time over many days, it’s just as well he skip the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland this year. Six cabinet ministers are attending the Alpine brainstorm festival in his place, including the ministers of finance, trade and the environment. So we’re kind of covered off when it comes to Davos.
So I’m not accusing Trudeau of any moral or tactical error when I say the world seemed to be rushing ahead without him Tuesday. It’s just the way things worked out for a day.
At Davos, the big news was the president of China, Xi Jinping, who posed as a standard-bearer for globalization, open trade and the fight against climate change. The Davos crowd ate it up.
Much of Xi’s speech was plainly meant as a rebuke of Trump on what was almost the eve of Trump’s inauguration. Since Trump’s lead economic adviser, Peter Navarro, has made a documentary film called Death by China, which opens with a cartoon image of a Chinese-made dagger stabbing the heartland of America, we’re off to a great start.
In London, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May outlined her vision of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. There is a snail’s-pace onset of realism in May’s rare public comments on the issue that will define her career for good or ill. Tuesday was her day for admitting that Britain cannot limit immigration without leaving the European single market, and that since she’s stuck with that choice, then to hell with the single market.
May also pleaded with the other 27 members of the EU to be gentle on her country. In return she insisted she wishes the Union no ill will. She wants a strong EU as Britain’s best partner, she proclaimed.
One of her problems is that no Brexit supporter outside Britain shares her ability to believe two contradictory things at once. For every non-British fan of Brexit, Britain’s vote is the beginning of the European Union’s end. Marine Le Pen took to Twitter to congratulate May and proclaimed that France will be the next country out. Trump told The Times, “I believe others will leave. I do think keeping it together is not gonna be as easy as a lot of people think.”
Trudeau is not ignoring these big global trends. They consume a large fraction of his spare time. The appointment of John McCallum as ambassador to Beijing and Dion as ambassador to assorted bits of Europe was meant to be part of a response to those issues. And, as has been reported elsewhere, Trudeau’s senior staff has already been meeting in New York City with senior Trump advisers.
Trudeau is right to seek peace with Trump. As a citizen, I’m free to say Trump’s election is, at best, not far short of a global catastrophe. As the head of Canada’s government, Trudeau has an obligation to seek common ground with the guy where it can be found.
He’ll have his work cut out for him. Trump is set on imposing a “border adjustment tax” against imports to the U.S. That would impose a huge cost on Canadian exports to the U.S., which is . . . most Canadian exports. The auto industry, cozily implanted in southern Ontario after generations of free trade in car components, would be shattered. It’s really hard to see how this would help American carmakers, never mind what it would do to Canadian firms. Supply chains are so integrated there is, in fact, no easy way to tell the difference between the two. Surely Trump will figure that out. All kinds of Canadian interlocutors have sought to make that point to him. If he doesn’t carve out an exception for Canada, the likeliest alternative will be a trade war, which may change Trump’s mind but not before Canada’s economy incurs serious harm.
These are the issues swirling around as Trudeau meets the people. Next week he’ll huddle with his cabinet in Calgary for two days. They’ll have much to discuss.