Peter Donolo is vice chair of H+K Strategies Canada. He served as director of communications for Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.
By now it has become abundantly clear that, when it comes to dealing with U.S. President Donald Trump, the leaders of the Western democracies are at a complete loss.
He upends NATO and G7 summits. He assails the U.S.’s closest allies with insults and – even worse – economic attacks. He sweet-talks leaders in closed-door sessions, then proceeds to savage them in public. He meddles in the internal political affairs of other countries. Everywhere he travels – in the democratic world – he dispenses his own noxious brand of nihilism.
Dictators and strongmen – from Kim Jong-un to Vladimir Putin – have Mr. Trump’s number. They clearly know how to handle him to get what they want.
But the leaders of the democracies seem shocked every time Donald Trump behaves like, well, Donald Trump. They think that by treating him like a normal U.S. President, he may act like one. It is evident that they don’t have the constructs or the vocabulary for dealing with an American president who behaves more like a Mussolini than a Roosevelt.
Their inability to speak truth publicly to Mr. Trump is not only a self-abasement on the part of these leaders, it is a dereliction of responsibility to their citizens.
Contrast the fecklessness of the Theresa May government’s handling of Mr. Trump’s incendiary interview with The Sun with the way Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson dealt with a similarly explosive intervention in Canadian politics 51 years ago this month.
Canada’s centennial summer of 1967 was in many ways a golden moment for Canada. Montreal’s Expo 67 was Canada’s bright, confident face to the world. At the same time, a cloud over that sunny summer: Quebec separatism was enjoying a resurgence – particularly among younger Quebecois. National unity, shattered by FLQ bombs throughout the early sixties, was tentative. The feel-good summer of 1967 seemed to be the salve that Canadians were looking for.
Into that summer tromped French President Charles de Gaulle. Like other international leaders, he made the trek to the Expo, with plans to cap off the visit with a state dinner at Rideau Hall in Ottawa. But in greeting a large, enthusiastic crowd from the balcony of Montreal City Hall on July 24, de Gaulle (it was later claimed he was swept up in the moment) roared “Vive Montreal! Vive le Quebec! Vive le Quebec libre!” That last declamation being the well-known rallying cry of Quebec separatists.
What happened next is the important part.
Our prime minister and government didn’t behave as if nothing happened. They didn’t look at their feet or try and change the subject. They said “enough.” More exactly, Mr. Pearson said: “The people of Canada are free. Every province in Canada is free. Canadians do not need to be liberated. Indeed, many thousands of Canadians gave their lives in two world wars in the liberation of France and other European countries.”
And then something even more interesting happened. Receiving Mr. Pearson’s message loud and clear, the French president cancelled the rest of his visit and flew back to France. Our prime minister had left him no other choice. No 21-gun salute on Parliament Hill. No state dinner at Rideau Hall (Ottawa lore has it that night the denizens of the city’s shelters were the beneficiaries of de Gaulle’s speech, as the meals that were meant for the state dinner were trucked to their kitchens.).
Mr. Pearson’s public image was that of an avuncular, self-deprecating sort of proto-nerd (though contemporaries say this masked a steelier side). He did not seek out staged confrontations. After all, he was one of the great diplomats of the era, Canada’s only Nobel Peace Prize winner.
But Mr. Pearson knew how to say “enough” to a foreign leader who had widely overstepped his boundaries. He knew his responsibility to his country, and to the greater norms of acceptable statecraft and relations between societies.
Half a century later, it is the U.K. that is going through its own national unity crisis. But when a foreign visitor pours oil on smouldering embers, and sets aflame the red carpet that has been rolled out for him, their response is … nothing. No public rebuke. No cancellation of the meeting with the royal family – the thing that the celebrity-crazed U.S. President prizes most out of his visit.
The moment slips by, and Mr. Trump learns that he can brazen his way through, and emerge to boast about it and torque it up. The self-denial and silence of other leaders only emboldens him further.
Ms. May, like the other democratic leaders – individually and as group – only succeed in incentivizing and rewarding Mr. Trump’s destructive behaviour.
They would do well to follow the example of the soft-spoken, bow-tie wearing Canadian PM from that summer half a century ago.