With his country facing economic collapse, untold deaths from a pandemic and a general election, does anyone think Donald Trump would hesitate to take punitive measures against Canada if it would boost his fortunes?
This is the President who went so far as to deem Canada a national security threat in imposing steel and aluminum tariffs against it. That was in 2018, when times were good.
What might he do now? On Monday, Mr. Trump raised the possibility of extending his travel ban to Canada. Also, with echoes of the 1929 and 2008 economic meltdowns confronting him, he could impose economic sanctions such as new tariffs on Canada.
Canadian officials are cautiously optimistic that neither will happen, but, having dealt with this President’s abnormalities, are right to be concerned. Mr. Trump is now – finally – starting to respond to the virus calamity the way a president should. But his initial laggard response heightened the likelihood of the virus spreading and probably served to hasten the economic plunge. Canada is collateral damage.
The President raised the possibility of a Canadian travel ban after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Monday announcement of a widespread ban which granted an exemption – for the time being – to Americans.
At the moment, an unofficial truce is in place between the two countries, but it is one that could unravel in these dire times at any moment.
Mr. Trudeau’s U.S. exemption drew criticism from some quarters. Americans coming across the border in the numbers they do present a greater threat for the spread of COVID-19 than citizens of any other country. But Mr. Trudeau had little choice to grant it given the enormous disruption to the economies that a border blockade would entail. As well, he had to consider the prospect of severe retaliatory measures from Mr. Trump.
James Moore, who served as a cabinet minister in Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, said in an e-mail interview it is reasonable for Ottawa to assume that Mr. Trump would feel humiliated by a border blockade and “could respond by (irrationally) doing the same to Canada as he did with his steel tariffs.” He could “thus cause massive shortages of goods that Canadians need – like fresh food, medical equipment and drugs.”
David MacNaughton, a former Canadian ambassador in Washington, said Mr. Trudeau could not risk the economic upheaval. “I actually don’t think Trump’s reaction is the biggest factor. We have such an integrated economy I don’t think anyone fully appreciates the chaos that would result. I guess there is a scenario when it could become necessary. Just hope we don’t get there.”
As for Mr. Trump taking any draconian actions from his end, Mr. MacNaughton said Washington has been forewarned of the dangers. When Mr. Trump was threatening a 25-per-cent tariff on Canadian autos, the Trump team got chapter and verse, he said, on the “disaster” that would result. “Yes it would be worse for us but they would suffer too, and in places like Michigan, Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin. Last time I looked those states are pretty important.” The Americans were pretty naive, he said. “They really didn’t appreciate how our lives and standard of living is intertwined.”
Gordon Giffin, a former U.S. ambassador to Canada, is confident border travel will remain intact, saying, “I cannot imagine a circumstance where our common border would be shut.”
Canada has far fewer confirmed coronavirus cases than other leading global economies in the Group of Seven. The United States thus poses a greater risk to Canada than vice versa, and if the situation gets out of control there as it did in Italy, the Trudeau exemption is not likely to last. The border will be shut down to Americans.
Almost two months have passed since the first COVID-19 case was uncovered in the U.S., but only in the past few days has Mr. Trump acted with the urgency required. Compared with Mr. Trudeau, who has received a good deal of criticism, Mr. Trump has come under a blaze of condemnation but appears oblivious to it, awarding himself a 10 out of 10 rating for his crisis response.
Relations between the President and the Prime Minister have improved somewhat since an incident in London last year when Mr. Trump labelled Mr. Trudeau two-faced. The signing of the successor trade accord to the North American Free Trade Agreement helped.
But Mr. Trump, in contrast to other presidents, holds Canada in no special regard and his attitudes can turn on a dime. With his electoral survival at stake, anything can be sacrificed, including sensible dealings with his neighbours to the north.