Did you hear the one about the world leader behaving badly at the NATO summit?
In what truly is a sign of just how much Donald Trump has disrupted the rules of political diplomacy in three tumultuous years in office, the punchline to that joke is not Donald Trump.
Instead, the bad diplomatic behaviour award at this week’s NATO summit is being given to the world leaders — including Canada’s own Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — who made the mistake of reacting to the perennially outrageous, unpredictable U.S. president.
That’s just how things seem to work around Trump — he yells, and those who whisper about him are deemed to be the problem.
Consider the scene in London this week. A U.S. president, facing impeachment at home, lands at a world summit news conference, where he rambles on gratuitously about his political enemies, taunts fellow leaders about their NATO commitments and inadvertently spills the location of the next G7 summit.
In other words, just another day at the office for Trump.
Later, a clutch of Trump’s fellow leaders, including Trudeau, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron — plus Princess Anne as a bonus — exchanged some frank incredulity and a few laughs at a Buckingham Palace cocktail reception over the president’s performance.
Suddenly, this is the most undiplomatic thing that happened at the NATO summit?
But this is how things seem to go with Trump.
The outrageousness, the lack of diplomacy is now expected — and expected to be tolerated, for fear of incurring Trump’s fury.
The outliers in this weird, upside-down world are those who dare to point it out, even in private, when they don’t know they’re being overheard. This is what generates controversy — not the far more controversial performance that prompted the what-the-heck-was-that discussion among Trudeau, Johnson and Macron.
There is another way to see the conversation at Buckingham Palace — as a totally sane, normal reaction to a politician who breaks all the rules of standard political behaviour, both at home and on the world stage.
The snippets of conversation overheard from that cocktail encounter were not that much different from observations being made Tuesday night on CNN (granted, Trump’s least favourite media outlet) when hosts such as Chris Cuomo remarked on the president’s highly unusual and undiplomatic behaviour at the summit.
Diplomacy, of course, dictates that world leaders don’t laugh at each other — unless, of course, you’re Trump, who thought the funniest thing about the whole incident was the name he called Trudeau after hearing about the video.
“That was funny when I said that guy was two-faced,” Trump said Wednesday.
This is, we’ll remember, a bit of a repeat of what happened after the G7 summit in Quebec in 2018, when Trump got annoyed at how Trudeau talked about him after their meeting. On that occasion, the president called the prime minister “weak” and “dishonest.”
What did Trudeau do to incite Trump’s wrath back then? He spoke out against U.S. tariffs against Canada — which is what you would expect a Canadian prime minister to do.
But that story quickly became one about Trump taking offence, rather than one about what prompted Trudeau to make the remarks in the first place.
Excuse the seasonal reference, but apparently this isn’t like that scene in the Christmas film Love Actually, when the British prime minister is lauded as a national hero for calling out the bully president.
Leaders like Trump get away with being political boors by making people afraid of how they’ll react to being called out. It’s much the same with bullies generally, who are happiest when we skip right over the behaviour that prompts a reaction to focus on the reaction itself. The lesson? Better to be outrageous than outraged.
The formidable New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, who studies Trump closer than most, posted an interesting tweet after seeing the Buckingham Palace video.
“Can’t get over this video, both for the fact that POTUS hates the thought of anyone laughing at him and for the fact that he long used ‘other countries are laughing at us’ as an attack against his predecessors,” Haberman wrote.
She is getting at the nub of this incident — which should prompt us to have some more reflective conversations than whether Trudeau, Macron and Johnson did a bad thing at a reception.
Should fellow world leaders just tolerate Trump’s behaviour and be rewarded for stoic, diplomatic silence no matter what he does or says?
Do we want the entire world to behave like the silent, cowed Republicans in the United States who are now too afraid of Trump’s fury to seriously look at the facts of the impeachment hearings?
Maybe more people should be having a laugh or two, or at least be rolling their eyes, in the face of a president who is breaking all the rules of political diplomacy, at home and abroad — rule-breaking that goes well beyond a candid cocktail chat at Buckingham Palace.
Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.