In June 2018, leaders of the United States and six of its closest allies gathered in Quebec, Canada for what was expected to be a predictable Group of 7 summit focused on discussing trade and security issues. But the weekend proved to be anything but typical with a series of tweets, insults, and tariffs threatening the stability of the United States’ relationships with its traditional allies – particularly with its neighbour and host of the summit, Canada.
While G-7 summits are generally uneventful in that they do not often trigger controversy or hostility, this particular meeting in Canada could not avoid the tension that had been building between US President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for several weeks prior. After citing national security as the main reason for inflicting steel and aluminium tariffs on Canada, President Trump was reluctant to attend the meeting. This reluctance and disinterest evolved into anger and hostility as President Trump accused Canada and the other allies of harming US interests and refused to sign the joint communique that was released at the end of the summit. But the hostility towards Canada and Prime Minister Trudeau went to another level when President Trump left the meeting.
Aboard Air Force One on his way to Singapore to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, President Trump called Prime Minister Trudeau “dishonest and weak” for announcing retaliatory tariffs on the United States after Trump had left the meeting rather than doing so in person. Further insults were added by Trump’s senior trade and economic advisors, Peter Navarro and Larry Kudlow, threatening Trudeau that President Trump would not engage in “bad-faith diplomacy” and that he would not let Kim Jong-un “see American weakness”. While these advisors later apologised for their unnecessarily strong language, President Trump has kept up the pressure on Prime Minister Trudeau, expressing his displeasure through several tweets even though this has further isolated him from the other G-7 leaders.
While America’s allies have quickly learnt to expect the unexpected since President Trump took office, this sustained and vicious targeting of Canada has unsurprisingly stunned the world. While Trump chooses to argue that Trudeau is unfairly subjecting the US to its retaliatory tariffs, the undeniable fact is that Trudeau would not have had to retaliate if Trump had not imposed unjustified tariffs on Canada. For his part, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau argued that Canada “will not be pushed around” on misguided grounds of national security despite the US being one of its closest allies. While it is understandable that a leader would want to protect his country and people when threatened, President Trump perceives Trudeau’s position to be a personal offence to his reputation.
It can be said that over the past eighteen months, American allies have reluctantly adapted to President Trump’s constantly changing definition of alliance. But if provoked enough, there will come a time when even the most loyal and unwavering partner of the US may choose to abandon a relationship that has been strengthened for centuries. While Canada’s role in US economic and diplomatic pursuits may not seem as valuable to the US as the US is to its interests, President Trump’s increasingly isolationist tendencies mean that the United States should hold on to any ally that is willing to remain in the picture. This is because even though Trump may not appreciate the power of a strong alliance such as that of the US and Canada, American allies have the potential to shape the future direction and influence of US foreign policy long after he leaves office.
Meghna Srinivas is the United States Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.