What does the war of words between U.S. and Canada over trade mean for both nations’ security?

Here’s the good news upfront: I believe the U.S. and Canadian security relationship will weather the recent spat. True, relations suffered a setback last week when the two countries’ trade dispute exploded into an avoidable public quarrel that ended with President Trump firing off angry tweets and retracting U.S. agreement to the G7’s planned statement.

How did this happen? Ironically, after what seemed to be a relatively cordial meeting, the G7 agreed to a fairly benign communique, and was postured for a show of allied unity. Even Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seemed to be getting along despite their differences. But at a press conference after Trump left for Singapore to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-in about de-nuclearization, Trudeau said:

“I highlighted directly to the president that Canadians did not take it lightly that the United States has moved forward with significant tariffs,” said Trudeau. “Canadians, we’re polite, we’re reasonable, but we will also not be pushed around.”

Candidly, any national leader might be expected to say much the same thing, at least insofar as not being “pushed around” by another country is concerned. But timing does matter, and the timing here was problematic.

Heading into what are sure to be tough negotiations with North Korea, Trudeau’s scolding could hardly be what Trump or any negotiator would want his opposite to hear. In fact, concern about showing weakness immediately before the talks with Kim appears to be much of the White House’s explanation for Trump’s visceral reaction.

Interestingly, a Canadian political scientist acknowledges that “Trump is, you know, trying to negotiate with the Koreans and dealing with much bigger players, the Chinese and the Europeans, on trade issues” and suggested that Trump needed to show that if he could be tough with a “small, super-friendly ally” he could be tough with anybody. Still, solidarity with allies going into a negotiation with a rogue power like North Korea would certainly have been a plus.

Unfortunately, the strategic importance to both Canada and the U.S. of the success of the Trump-Kim summit were obviously not enough to hold Trudeau’s tongue. But Trudeau has domestic political problems that must have him concerned. Canada’s National Post reported in March that a researcher had to return to 1988 “to find a prime minister with approval numbers as low as Trudeau’s at this point in their first term.” Around the same time the Washington Post  headlined a story about him with “Canadians’ love affair with Justin Trudeau is over.”

Additionally, an April poll showed Trudeau’s disapproval rating as high as Trump’s at the time. And just last Thursday, Trudeau’s Liberal party suffered a “historic defeat” in provincial elections in Ontario. Vigorously opposing – even embarrassing Trump – might earn him some domestic popularity (as seems to be the case: see  here).

What does all this mean for North America’s defense? Both countries really have no alternative but to work closely with each other. For its part, Canada has to defend a larger land mass than the U.S., and do so with a population only ten percent that of the U.S. Moreover, its GDP is only about one-ninth of that of its southern neighbor. Even more critically, Canada’s own assessment of its security threats highlight China and Russia, neither of which it could militarily confront without U.S. help.

Consider as well that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported last year that “Canadian defence spending [is] among lowest in NATO despite small increase” in 2016. It said that a “small bump in defence spending in 2016…helped Canada move up to 20th from 23rd in terms of spending among NATO’s 28 allies, putting it in a three-way tie with Hungary and Slovenia.” Bloomberg did report last March that Canada boosted its defense spending to “1.29 percent [of gross domestic product or GDP] last year compared with 1.16 percent in 2016.”

All this means that Canada now spends around $19.6 billion (in USD) for defense, and hopes to grow that to $25.1 billion (USD) by 2026.

Even so, the fact remains that as energetic as Canada’s recent spending to rebuild its military has been, it amounts to but a fraction of what the U.S. devotes ($686 billion). Of course, no reasonable person can expect Canada (or any NATO country, frankly) to spend anywhere near what the US does for defense, but the gap in GDP (the U.S. spends around of 3.5% of GDP on defense) rankles. And this isn’t unique to Trump: recall that in 2016 President Obama castigated “free riders” among our allies. (The US currently accounts for almost 72 percent of all NATO spending).

Conversely, it would be disingenuous not to recognize that the U.S.’s own security would be vastly more complicated – and expensive – absent a strongly democratic, economically robust, and militarily-capable partner on its northern border.  American security needs a strong relationship with Canada.  It really is that simple.

So what to do? Nothing for the moment except to cease the caustic rhetoric. Once the Korea meeting is over, the U.S. and Canada can get back to negotiating trade differences in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Among other things, the U.S. needs to better appreciate the unique circumstances of certain Canadian economic policies (regarding dairy for instance) and, especially, the surplus of trade in services (as opposed to goods) that the US enjoys with Canada (but see also here).

At the same, however, both sides need to recognize – and integrate into the trade discussions – the security dimension of the unique relationship. A few months ago scholar Johns Hopkins’ professor Christopher Sands wrote an interesting piece in The Conversation entitled “Why Canada shouldn’t always count on special treatment from the U.S.” Citing the work of U.S.-Canadian relations scholar Charles F. Doran, Sands said the trade relationship over many years has been premised on a special understanding between the two nations:

Doran argued that the United States granted exemptions based on an “implicit quid pro quo” that neither side would seek to exploit the other: The U.S. would not wield economic leverage against Canada and Canada would not attempt to take advantage of U.S. defence spending by underfunding its own military and national security.

When Sands wrote his piece in March, the Trump administration was planning to exempt Canada from the same tariffs that have now become the cause of discord. Sands said then:

For Trump, a Canadian increase in defence spending might be more important than changes to Canada’s widely maligned supply management system in the dairy sector in getting U.S.-Canadian economic relations back on track.

Plainly, that’s not Trump’s thinking at the moment, but after the summit with Kim – especially if it yields some success – there may be an opportunity for rapprochement, particularly if the security relationship (not to mention the U.S.-Canadian economic integration) is properly weighed by both parties.

In any event, I agree with what NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said earlier this year:

What I can say is that we have seen, throughout the history of NATO, that there has been differences between NATO Allies on different issues, including trade issues, but we have always been able to avoid that these differences have undermined the unity of the Alliance when it comes to the core task of NATO, and that is that we protect and defend each other. And I am absolutely certain that we will be able to do also that this time. But yes, there are some differences when it comes to trade, but at the same time I am absolutely certain that NATO will stand united against… or around our core task, to defend and protect each other.

I also think it’s a good sign that various Trump administration leaders are playing down the dispute (see e.g., here). Perhaps most importantly, the Washington Post is reporting that Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said that “he does not expect the unfolding dispute with Europe and Canada over U.S. import tariffs to damage military and security relations within the NATO alliance.”

I believe he’s right, but there is still much work to do mending fences. We must ensure that potential adversaries do not dangerously miscalculate, as both Americans and Canadians have too much at stake.

As we like to say on Lawfire®, gather the facts, examine the arguments, assess the law, and decide for yourself! 

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