by Tim Harper
If you believe body language is the true indicator of relations between global leaders, there was much to analyze in an awkward moment between Justin Trudeau and Donald Trump at the United Nations this week.
If you believe Trudeau has fumbled trade talks with Trump and is sprinting headlong into crippling auto tariffs, you saw an overeager prime minister approach the U.S. president in search of a handshake that was only grudgingly given by a man who would not even stand to acknowledge an ally.
If you watched the encounter without partisan goggles, you saw Trump being a boor.
With Trump, however, body language is all embroidery, and all ambiguity vanishes as soon as he opens his mouth.
In telling the world he refused a meeting with Trudeau, formally or informally, and that he didn’t like Canada’s negotiating style or our lead negotiator in NAFTA talks, he was again doing Trudeau a favour.
While Trump avoided any interaction with Trudeau on the margins of meetings the way one avoids an ex-partner at a house party, he was also signalling Canada has a tough trade-negotiating team.
Yes, this may be just another pre-deal manifestation of Trump’s negotiating style, which features threats, fake deadlines, bluster, falsehoods and insults.
But it was also the worst public show of condescension this country’s leadership has endured from a neighbour in living memory.
Certainly there was well-known enmity between Trudeauís father, Pierre, and Richard Nixon, but that president vented in private, his views only revealed later on his infamous audio tapes.
George W. Bush and Jean ChrÈtien clashed over Iraq – a senior Chretien aide had to resign after being overheard calling the U.S. president a moron – but the two men did not slag each other from the podium.
And, of course, Simon Reisman, Canada’s chief negotiator, famously left the table in 1987 in the days before the original Canada-U.S. deal was sealed.
However, a sense of decorum and respect between leaders continued through tense times.
This has all been tossed out by Trump, a man who has admitted he made up trade numbers in a private meeting with Trudeau, has vowed economic “ruination” for Canada, has called Trudeau “very weak” and “dishonest,” and whose adviser promised “a special place in hell” for the prime minister – all the while dismissively claiming love for Canada while offering to sing a few bars of “O Canada.”
Itís easy to see why Trump would not like Trudeau, a leader who views policy through a gender-equity lens, made a show of welcoming refugees and often offers platitudes that grate on a tough-talking, often incomprehensible, tangent-loving president.
It’s also easy to see why he would dislike Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland because – well, she’s a woman, and a tough woman to boot, who refused to smile and capitulate at Trump’s winner-take-all NAFTA table.
She is a woman who has not been shy about voicing Canadian thoughts on Trumpís world views.
What Trump does not understand, nor likely care about from his xenophobic bubble is that his trash-talking merely galvanizes support for the Trudeau government. He would be doing the same for a Conservative or NDP government in the same circumstances.
It has always been an open question how long Trudeau can benefit by subtly campaigning against Trump, but Trump keeps giving the Liberals more leash than anyone had reason to expect.
There is big danger, of course. Trump doesn’t seem to understand that a 25 per cent tariff on auto imports, if subject to retaliation, could cost more than 600,000 U.S. jobs while it rips the heart out of Canada’s automotive and auto parts industries.
This government will either negotiate a deal and be able to tell Canadians it held firm, even if it has scant evidence of improvement, or Trudeau will campaign without a deal, compensating those savaged by Trump and telling Canadians he had to stand firm in the face of bullying.
It also boxes in Trudeau’s opponents.
A Campaign Research poll showed 81 per cent of Canadians disapproved of the job Trump was doing, while 11 per cent approved and 8 per cent didn’t know.
That makes it difficult for Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer to pop up with criticism of Trudeau on trade before retreating, and lays waste to Maxime Bernier’s view that Ottawa should merely put supply management on the table and begin negotiating seriously.
Ultimately, every time he opens his mouth on trade, Trump shows that when it comes to enemies, Trudeau couldn’t ask for a better friend than the U.S. president.
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services