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Opinion Criticizing Trump isn’t in Canada’s national interest – and Trudeau knows it

In the coming days and months, Justin Trudeau can expect to be repeatedly asked to take shots at Donald Trump. On Tuesday in the House of Commons, NDP leader Tom Mulcair called the U.S. President a "fascist," while the opposition invited the Liberals to stop being so diplomatic and start criticizing Mr. Trump and his policies. It's not going to be easy for the Prime Minister to hold his tongue and his tweets. Doing so may not even be in his political interest. But for the sake of the national interest, he must.

The dilemma for the government is this: There's a bumper crop of Canadian political hay to be made out of being a loud and visible Trump opponent. That's why Tuesday's emergency debate on the President's executive order suspending refugee admissions and barring travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries featured the opposition trying to goad the government into denouncing the U.S. head of state. In response, the Liberals stuck to their lines, which are that Canada is taking a very different approach to immigration and refugees, and the government is not going to criticize Mr. Trump directly, because it's up to Americans to decide on American policy.

The Liberals are right. Making a show of publicly poking the new President, in week two of his administration, is almost certainly going to be counterproductive. But to many Canadians, particularly those on the left end of the political spectrum, the Trudeau government's realistic approach may sound weak.

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The irony is that this idea – that diplomatic niceties are weakness, and firing withering criticism at the neighbours is a sign of strength – is what put Donald Trump in the White House. Just look at how he's handled U.S.-Mexico relations. He made it a matter of principle to take shots at Mexico for its alleged destruction of U.S. jobs.

You may not share Mr. Trump's take and you may not see it as principled, but his voters sure did. They wanted him to stick it to Mexico, so he made a point of not just promising to change policy, but of doing so as publicly and rudely as possible.

On the campaign trail, he picked fights with America's southern neighbour, called Mexicans names and promised to make them pay for a wall to keep them out; once in office, he used Twitter to publicly sabotage a meeting with the Mexican president. None of this is actually in the U.S. national interest. But it is most certainly in Mr. Trump's political interest. His voters ate it up.

Mr. Trump wants to be seen whacking Mexico and Mexicans because, even though it's bad policy, and even though it doesn't benefit America or Americans, it plays well with his voters. The same goes for the ban on refugees. Good politics for him, bad policy for the country.

And the same would be true if Mr. Trudeau tried to reap domestic political rewards from publicly slamming our southern neighbour.

In a world where everyone has an endless supply of insta-opinions, all of which must be expressed as quickly and coarsely as possible – see @realDonaldTrump – the Trudeau government's diplomatic restraint sounds old-fashioned. Well, good. The business of running a country is old-fashioned. We've been doing it successfully for 150 years, and we'd like at least 150 more.

If you're a Hollywood actor or movie director, the cost to you of spending the next few months tweeting daily against Mr. Trump will be nil. It might help America; it will probably help your career. Celebrities, like pundits, don't have fiduciary duties to anyone other than themselves and their conscience. It's a different story for the government of Canada.

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Yes, the new President is taking the U.S. to a bad and unprecedented place. Yes, Mr. Trump is a danger to the U.S. economy, global stability and U.S. democracy, and those Americans opposed to his plans have every reason to be very publicly fighting him.

But the Trudeau government, though it disagrees with a long list of Trump policies, must also try to do business with the new administration. It has no choice. Canada can follow a different path than the United States on many issues, as we are already doing on immigrants, visitors and refugees. And if and when the Trump administration makes demands of Ottawa that are not in Canada's national interest, the Trudeau government will be right to respond with a firm but polite no. And at some point in the future, there may come a time when Ottawa has to publicly and directly criticize the White House.

But at this point – it's only week two of the Trump administration – it simply isn't in Canada's national interest for the government to be setting itself up as a Trump critic, or seeding Twitter storms with the world's most powerful tweeter. The Prime Minister and his team know that. The question is whether Mr. Trudeau will continue to see it that way, and whether his voters will let him.

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