No one could argue that there is method to Donald Trump's madness. That would be giving the consistently inconsistent U.S. President far too much credit for actually having thought through the consequences of his erratic behaviour before sending Germany's Angela Merkel off to cry in her beer.
Yet, Mr. Trump's childish tweets and impulsiveness have sent U.S. allies scrambling to assume their share of the burden for global leadership in ways that years of friendly admonitions by previous administrations had failed to accomplish. So, it is ironic to hear champions of multilateralism – including Canada – lament the non-hegemonic behaviour of the world's suddenly recalcitrant hegemon. Isn't this the moment we've long been waiting for?
"The fact that our friend and ally has come to question the very worth of its mantle of global leadership puts in sharper focus the need for the rest of us to set our own clear and sovereign course," Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland declared last week in a speech that appeared to be primarily designed to make the prospect of a 70 per-cent increase in Canada's defence spending long demanded by "our friend and ally" easier to swallow for pacifist Liberal voters.
The truth is that the sudden retreat of the United States into isolationism is much overblown. Yes, Mr. Trump withdrew his country from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Paris climate accord. But the former was unlikely to ever make it through the U.S. Congress, while the latter is a worthy but ultimately toothless document that provides environmental cover for greenwashing governments (including Canada's) rather than actually doing much to stall global warming.
What's more, only three of the European countries that signed the Paris agreement have a credible plan to meet their carbon-reduction commitments under the accord. Canada is not even close to coming up with one. Mr. Trump's move simply exposes the intellectual dishonesty of the accord's champions, including Canada, which would have voters believe they're on top of the problem and that moving to a zero carbon economy will be as painless as switching from analog to digital cable.
Meanwhile, the U.S. security umbrella under which Canada, western Europe and the Asia-Pacific live is not suddenly being degraded or dismantled. On the contrary, Mr. Trump proposes to increase military spending, while the missile-defence systems that protect the United States and its allies (including us) continue to be upgraded. If the Liberals were serious about us pulling our weight, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan would not still be mulling over Canada's participation in the U.S. ballistic-missile defence system that protects us from Ms. Freeland's nemesis, Russia, and other rogue players out to destroy the liberal international order.
Ms. Freeland's speech also belies the constant reassurances that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis have offered to allies in the wake of each of Mr. Trump's Twitter rages or pouting matches. The foreign-policy chattering classes were aflutter after Mr. Trump's recent speech to a North Atlantic Treaty Organization gathering did not contain language reaffirming a U.S. commitment to NATO's Article 5, under which an attack on one alliance member is considered an attack on all. The anxiety rose a notch last week after Politico reported that Mr. Trump or his chief adviser Steve Bannon moved to quash a reference to Article 5 that Mr. Tillerson and Mr. Mattis had explicitly included in the speech.
Yet, Mr. Trump's rhetorical pandering to his domestic base should not be confused with actual U.S. foreign policy. Besides, by Friday, the President national security team had set him straight. "I'm committing the United States to Article 5," Mr. Trump said during a press conference with Romania's President, whose country recently boosted its defence spending. "We hope that our other NATO allies will follow Romania's lead on meeting their financial obligations and paying their fair share for the cost of defence."
If Canada's sudden talk of hard power was truly a reaction to U.S. isolationism it would not be limply backed up by a 20-year, backend-loaded defence spending wish list, but by an immediate boost in military expenditures and a global tour by Ms. Freeland to revive the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Instead, Canada's defence budget will barely budge during Mr. Trump's first term and grow only modestly during – perish the thought – his second. Ottawa, meanwhile, could not care less about TPP, as it puts all its energies into salvaging the North American free-trade agreement.
It seems Ms. Freeland is hoping a promise to spend more on the military later will pay off with Mr. Trump at the trade negotiating table now.