Canada has once again become collateral damage for Donald Trump’s bull-in-a-china-shop foreign policy, and the pattern is so deeply disturbing as to warrant more than just a sigh from the prime minister.
Justin Trudeau was subdued Thursday when he said an Iranian missile probably caused the plane crash that killed 57 Canadians. Sure, he expressed sympathy for the families of the victims, but there was also weariness in his call for Canada to be included in the investigation into how those innocent passengers were killed.
Where was the indignation?
It was missing – no doubt a mindful decision by Trudeau’s strategists, who saw no need to add his anger to the irrational directions world affairs seem to be taking.
Fire was similarly lacking in Trudeau’s response to the Trump-induced NAFTA saga, and the mess the U.S. has dragged us into by going after a powerful Chinese business executive on Canadian soil.
In each instance, Canada’s response has been calm and industrious. We’ve worked behind the scenes in the belief that quiet diplomacy, respect for international law and a pile of facts will rule the day.
The approach is not working.
Would indignation work any better? Maybe not – but at least we’d be telling Trump that we see his recklessness for what it is. And this week, it would certainly have reflected the mood of an angry and grieving nation.
Sometimes that’s a leader’s job.
Trump was elected in part on his vow to tear up a trade agreement that had become the bedrock of the North American economy. How did Canada respond? “OK, let’s talk” – no matter that the clear target of Trump’s protectionist rhetoric was Mexico.
Three years later, after much angst, brinksmanship and the undermining of investor confidence, we finally have a deal. But it’s probably not much better than the old NAFTA, and we paid heavily for it along the way, losing significant business confidence and spending precious amounts of political capital in Washington.
Canada took another one on the chin just over a year ago when border officials detained Meng Wanzhou, a top executive with Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei, at the request of the U.S. We had no stake in the dispute that led to her arrest, but Canada has paid a steep price nonetheless.
In retaliation, China has held two Canadians in detention for more than a year, banned our canola exports and temporarily banned our meat. Trade with China has faltered, and the relationship with our second largest trading partner is now on the rocks.
Canada’s response has been to patiently and painstakingly explain the facts. Extradition is part of our respect for the courts. Our canola is safe. Our prisoners need due process. Our meat is fine, and we’ll fix any small mistakes.
As with the NAFTA renegotiation, Canada’s defence of its interests rests more on binders of charts and figures than on showing any spine.
Our cautious diplomacy – waiting them out, trying to wear them down with endless explanations – has yielded little progress. Even if China is listening, it shows no sign of budging until Meng is set free.
The lives lost in this week’s plane crash are the most outrageous price we’ve yet paid for being a bystander in conflicts provoked by the U.S.
Is our response simply going to be more of the same?
Trudeau says he wants “closure, transparency, accountability and justice.”
Since any country with nationals on the plane has rights to at least observe the investigation, Canada will have some transparency, which Iran has recognized. But we are still not sure our officials and experts can get the required visas into Iran, let alone actually participate in figuring out what happened.
Canada does, however, have the world’s sympathy on its side, with widespread recognition that the passengers were random victims of the long-standing tension between Iran and the United States. And Canada is not alone in shouldering the burden of American belligerence, with many a global power feeling the unexpected pain of tariffs, insults and cold shoulders from an erstwhile friend.
In the face of a powerful and erratic U.S. president, however, sympathy is just not enough.
Heather Scoffield is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.