MONTREAL—An Oval Office bilateral “pool spray,” during which a delegation from the White House press corps records for posterity the president of the United States sitting beside another world leader while facing a scrum of boom mics and blinding flashbulbs, is always a study in contrasts.
Because there are rarely any statements longer than “great to see you,” the ritual tends to be a four-minute tableau vivant of comparing and contrasting: old versus young, male and female, seasoned head of government meets jittery freshman.
The Donald Trump/Justin Trudeau pool spray Monday was more interesting. Because Trump is in the process of rebranding American exceptionalism in a way that unsettles minorities, immigrants, members of Congress, constitutional experts, free-speech advocates, historians, women, and fans of truth and reality, the juxtaposition of the mercurial Trump and the politically adept Trudeau gave the PM a relative gravitas he didn’t project in the same shot with Barack Obama close to a year ago.
What does it mean when the most reassuring, serious leader in an Oval Office bilat isn’t the most powerful one? If the man who is, nominally, the most powerful political leader in the world, has all the leverage but doesn’t operate within the usual parameters of what is considered possible?
At this early stage of Trump’s presidency, Canada has adopted the eminently rational approach of being eminently rational, choosing to model normalcy and compassion and making no sudden public moves on questions of moral authority. The Canadians suggested a roundtable on women in the workforce that offset Trump’s sexism issues and gave his daughter, Ivanka, a policy platform.
During their joint news conference on Monday, Trudeau’s key quote on Trump’s controversial immigration policies was, “The last thing Canadians expect is for me to come down and lecture another country on how they chose to govern themselves.”
While this may reflect pragmatism on Trudeau’s part, it’s also a measure of the unprecedented diplomatic dilemma of whether to call out America for the sort of belligerent behaviour historically displayed by more distant non-democracies.
Part of the problem is that some of those same non-democracies, notably Russia and China, are now quite powerful and don’t think countries should interfere in or pass judgment on other countries’ behaviour on human rights because they view stability as an existential matter and value order over civil liberties within their own borders.
The critical mass of diplomatic and economic pressure from that shift is being felt worldwide. Journalists in Turkey are now being rounded up on terror charges, non-governmental organizations in Egypt are being cyber-harassed by intelligence agencies, and people in the Philippines are being murdered in the streets by their own government. President Rodrigo Duterte—a poster boy for the burgeoning thuggery, intimidation, and post-truth school of leadership—feels sufficiently immune from the scorn of the international community to call the United Nations human rights chief an idiot.
Trump, in response to the recent observation from Fox’s Bill O’Reilly that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a killer, retorted: “We’ve got a lot of killers…What, do you think—our country’s so innocent?” It was shocking because it’s something no normal American president would ever say; it’s something Putin himself would say.
By suggesting a moral equivalency between America and Russia on thuggery, Trump is abetting the notion that the two systems are equally corrupt, so the question of which one prevails, in what is now being characterized as a post-Cold War rivalry between the existing liberal world order and the rising “illiberal” powers, is of little importance.
While America isn’t perfect, Vladimir Kara-Murza, Alexei Navalny, Ai Weiwei, abducted Hong Kong booksellers, detained Chinese human rights lawyers, and murdered Russian journalists—if they could still speak—might have something to say on that question. Before the froth had dried on Trump’s inauguration speech, China was presenting itself as an alternative to the “crisis” of Western democracy and capitalism.
Mr. Trump has already chipped at the pillars of democracy by discrediting the judiciary, the endangered legitimate media and, ironically, the electoral system itself. Another pillar of democracy, freedom, has also been under attack in the past decade, with the explosion of security-justified mass surveillance and police powers gradually closing the gap between civil liberties in democracies and non-democracies.
In a Face the Nation hit on Sunday later praised by Trump on Twitter, White House aide Stephen Miller warned: “Our opponents, the media, and the whole world will soon see…that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.”
While the whole world watches and waits, Trudeau may find Canadians’ expectations of how we weigh in on values that have been not just Canadian but American, too, for more than half a century, begin to change.
Lisa Van Dusen, associate editor of Policy Magazine, was a Washington columnist for The Ottawa Citizen, Washington bureau chief for Sun Media, and international news writer for Peter Jennings at ABC World News Tonight, as well as an editor at AP in New York and UPI in Washington.
The Hill Times