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Opinion Trump’s new nationalism has cut Canada loose – and our vulnerability is on full display

When David MacNaughton, Canada’s Ambassador to the United States, was asked if he had any cards to play around the potential collateral damage coming Canada’s way over the extradition of a Huawei executive to the United States, he was quick to respond. “No, no, no. We have to follow what our laws and our agreements are.” To do otherwise “would betray all the things we stand for.”

In the past, Ottawa would have had some leverage with the United States, in the form of good will. It could draw on shared history and their close partnership – all the bilateral clichés. By and large, the United States had our back and has served as a protector, just as mother country Britain did in all the years prior to the American ascendancy. (How lucky has Canada been?)

But that shape of things is no longer intact. There is not much of a special bond to draw on now. In President Donald Trump’s survival-of-the-fittest optic, Canada is just another country. This in turn sends a signal to other countries dealing with Canada. Feel free to push Canada around, as China, Saudi Arabia and Russia have. You won’t have to answer to Washington for doing so.

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The China issue, tweeted Bruce Heyman, the former U.S. ambassador to Ottawa, is a great test for the United States on this bilateral front. “Do we stand up for our best friend and ally when needed? Never before would this be in question but with @realDonaldTrump, unfortunately it is.”

Mr. MacNaughton, who fared well in the trade negotiations, is the first ambassador to have operated in the new bilateral context. On the trade file, the Trump administration lived up to its chaotic reputation by changing positions willy-nilly. But there was at least some economic leverage for Ottawa in these negotiations, and it retaliated with tariffs.

Not so with China. The ambassador has heard expressions of sympathy over Ottawa’s bind, having incurred Beijing’s wrath in a dispute triggered by the United States, resulting in two of its citizens detained by Chinese authorities. But there is no evidence of any strong pressure being exerted by Washington to gain their release. Mr. Trump, who is out front on so many issues, has been nowhere on this one.

Given the continuing trade fight between Mr. Trump and China, Mr. MacNaughton has warned the Americans against using Canada as a political football in the dispute. He’s been told it is not happening. But he said he is not convinced.

There is still some hope, as Canada’s Ambassador to China John McCallum said on Wednesday, that the United States might not go ahead with its extradition request for Meng Wanzhou, the detained Huawei executive . Indeed, it’s always the case that Mr. Trump can change his mind in a flash.

The Huawei crisis brings to mind Ottawa’s standoff with Saudi Arabia last summer over its arrest of Samar Badawi, a human-rights activist whose family lived in Canada. Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland expressed alarm and urged that she be released. The Saudis reacted with rage. They recalled their Canadian ambassador, and froze trade and investment with Canada.

But Washington officials didn’t issue a word of protest against the Saudis. They dodged. The Saudis’ killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi vindicated Ms. Freeland’s view of their regime. Washington’s acquiescence on the Badawi case may have played a role in emboldening the Saudis to move against Mr. Khashoggi.

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In Ms. Freeland’s view, the clash between authoritarianism and democracy is the defining issue of our time. Her confrontational approach to Russia would normally have muscular backing from the United States – but not so under Mr. Trump. His soft treatment of authoritarian leaders has been well documented.

This week marks the second anniversary of the Trump presidency. That much has changed is an understatement. Over the past century, Canada’s standing in the world has been defined in large part by its perception that it stands shoulder to shoulder with the United States, sharing its values on human rights, trade, multilateralism and defence.

It’s no longer the case. In many ways, Canada has been cut loose. It’s what so many Canadians wanted for long. More independence. More freedom from American economic, cultural and military might.

But those are not top-of-the-line concerns now – not when the good neighbour has been labelled a national-security threat by Washington, not when relations with China have just been scarred, not when the possibility of more collateral damage from the new American nationalism is ever present.

In the new construct, more autonomy means more vulnerability.

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