National Column: Trudeau government should adjust Trump strategy

by Paul Wells

It’s time to conclude, on a balance of probabilities, that Donald Trump will be merely an ineffectual president.

For a while it seemed the White House’s listless new tenant might have some sort of trade strategy. For a few days he even seemed to be preparing for an attack on Iran. That seems so long ago. He may yet do something big domestically, like repeal Obamacare, although the news that massive new social programs contain fine print has rattled him badly.

Being an evil genius takes an ungodly amount of prep work. Who knew? It’s so much easier to hightail it to Mar-A-Lago for another weekend. Down there, the world is divided into people who are paid to be nice to him and people who have paid to be nice to him. He can handle both.

Perhaps the time is coming, or soon will, when the Trudeau government should adjust its strategy regarding Trump. The original working assumptions are already running out of steam.

For both the prime minister and his detractors (Kevin “Bambi vs. Godzilla” O’Leary among the latter) Trump was viewed, after his astonishing election victory last November, as a potential source of organized menace to the Canadian economy.

He would tax industrial goods at the border. He would abrogate NAFTA and ensnare Canada in protracted negotiations, where his decades of experience as a dealmaker would leave poor naive Justin Trudeau bereft and dizzy, wearing only a barrel on leather shoulder straps.

In response, Trudeau executed a profound reorganization of his ministry, of the public service and of Liberal political staff. The goal was to become more nimble on the defence, accelerating information-gathering and decision-making across government to ensure that whatever move Trump might make, Canada could respond.

But perhaps defence isn’t the game. Or at least it shouldn’t be the only game. Because maybe this president is incapable of organizing an offence.

That’s the conclusion the Russians seem to have drawn. If anyone should be taken as an authority on Donald Trump, it’s the Russians. In a fascinating story in Tuesday’s New York Times, assorted Russian analysts said Vladimir Putin is now treating Trump not as a conniving ally but as a random-event generator who will pull Washington into chaos.

“Right now the Kremlin is looking for ways that Russia can use the chaos in Washington to pursue its own interests,” pro-Putin analyst Sergei Markov told the Times. “The main hope is that the U.S. will be preoccupied with itself and will stop pressuring Russia.”

What would an offensive Canadian strategy look like, if Canada followed Markov’s reasoning? How can Canada use the chaos in Washington to pursue its own interests?

One set of interests is inbound: It’s about who comes to our shores. Canada has long watched while the United States attracted a disproportionate share of the brightest students, the most distinguished researchers, the wiliest entrepreneurs.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau has already been making changes to attract all those groups. A concerted global marketing program would spread the word. Canada has a big disadvantage: unlike Australia or the U.K., it has no national education minister to lead global marketing efforts. Nor should it, education being a provincial responsibility.

But a senior federal minister should be put in charge of marketing Canadian research and education, in partnership with the provinces. I nominate FranÁois-Philippe Champagne, the new trade minister, because he’s so peppy he’s probably already doing it anyway.

Another interest, the attraction of international investors for Canadian infrastructure projects, is well in hand, and I have no advice to offer.

The third Canadian interest is the most delicate: the search for strategic partners to replace an increasingly introspective United States.

In some ways, America can’t be replaced: Nowhere else is as close, as rich or as culturally simpatico. But Trudeau must conclude, as every modern prime minister has in different ways, that it does no good to rely too closely on the Americans alone. Especially now.

China stayed aloof from even Jean ChrÈtien’s ardent courting. Trudeau will not be able to tap its amazing potential in the short term. Europe is almost as big, richer and needs friends now, too. The working relationships built up over a decade’s CETA talks must not be allowed to atrophy now.

In his mandate letter to International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, Trudeau urged her to “refocus Canada’s development assistance on helping the poorest and most vulnerable.” That now seems simplistic. Many of Africa’s national economies are rising, fitfully but full of promise. Canada should build long-term relationships by supporting institutions that educate a new African leadership class and strengthen African markets, legal systems and governance.

I could go on. A few hours’ brainstorming could generate countless ideas for pursuing Canadian prosperity in an era of American eclipse. It’s work nobody would have wanted. But the task now seems at hand.

Paul Wells is a national affairs writer. His column appears Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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