Why Canada won’t say a word about Trump’s return to politics

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The Canadian government has an unequivocal position on what it intends to say regarding the just-announced political comeback of Donald Trump: nothing.

Two years after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau blamed the then-U.S. president for inciting a riot in an effort to cling to power, the Canadian government intends to keep mum.

Conversations with Canadian officials in recent days made clear they have no intention of voicing any revulsion they might be feeling in light of the events of Jan. 6, 2021.

But already, the mere idea of Trump returning to power is being discussed discreetly among participants within international institutions.

Two of those institutions happened to be meeting last week when Trump announced another presidential run: NATO and the COP27 climate conference.

Trump’s announcement coincided with an emergency gathering of NATO leaders after a missile landed in Poland, and with UN climate talks unfolding in Egypt.

The potential implications for both of those institutions is obvious. Trump tried withdrawing from the UN climate pact. And he threatened to leave NATO or severely undermine it, while different former aides said they feared that, in a second term, he might really withdraw.

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Canada’s representative to NATO during the Trump years declined to describe what talks were like at the time because, she said, the confidentiality of conversations is a sacrosanct principle among military allies.

But when asked to assess the potential effect of a Trump comeback, Kerry Buck was blunt.

“It can do a lot of damage,” Buck, now retired from government, told CBC News. “In Ukraine, specifically, and everywhere else.”

Watching nervously in Europe

Buck said certain planks of NATO’s just-adopted strategic document would be called into question if Trump returned to office, like the value of alliances in dealing with China and climate change being viewed as a security threat.

To be clear, there is no NATO worth speaking of without the United States; the Americans account for almost 70 per cent of the alliance’s total defence spending.

But NATO insiders’ immediate concern isn’t Trump pulling out; it’s that he might severely weaken it, by calling into doubt its collective-defence clause.

The former president has been a topic of consternation lately in Brussels, where NATO is headquartered. One NATO-watcher there said Europeans  nervously eyed the recent U.S. midterm elections for signs of a Trump MAGA resurgence.

Republican support for funding and arming Ukraine has been softening and the idea of the U.S. Congress cutting off that assistance would have untold ramifications.

Destroyed Russian tanks and armoured vehicles are seen in Kyiv, Ukraine, last week. A big unknown: what will the Ukraine-Russia outlook be on Jan. 20, 2025, when the next U.S. president takes office? (Andrew Kravchenk/The Associated Press)

But Chris Skaluba said there was relief in Brussels over the outcome of the midterms, and hope that the poor showing of Trump-style nationalists has strengthened the pro-NATO faction in Washington.

Now, he said, people in Europe are eyeing the 2024 U.S. election.

Skaluba said there are still many wild cards and unknowns about how the world might look on Jan. 20, 2025, the date of the next U.S. presidential inauguration.

“It’s hard to predict, given so much will have changed,” said Skaluba, a NATO analyst at the Atlantic Council think-tank, who previously spent over a decade in the U.S. government, at the Pentagon and in other security-related roles and as a liaison to NATO.

“What is the state of the Ukraine conflict? Is Putin still hanging on to power? … Has European and Canadian defence spending continued to rise? Will NATO have carved out an important role in countering China?”

He said all these things would matter to the precise implications of a second Trump presidency. In general, Skaluba would expect the type of turbulence we saw between Trump and allies from 2016 and 2020. But he added two caveats.

One, he said, is that the stakes are far higher in Eastern Europe than they were in 2016. Skaluba also said Trump is more experienced now in using the levers of power to get what he wants.

Consternation at climate conference

At the climate conference in Egypt last week, one participant shuddered at the thought of another Trump presidency. 

A protest calling for money for climate action is seen at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on Nov. 11. If he were to be elected president again, Trump would be unlikely to support current U.S. climate policies. (Peter Dejong/The Associated Press)

“That would be disastrous,” said Stela Herschmann, an environmental lawyer with Observatorio do Clima, a network of Brazilian NGOs.

“The world has no time to waste on negationist [climate-change-denying] leaders.”

It was a difficult enough conference as it stands: countries struggled over two weeks to piece together a deal that delayed a number of hard choices.

They pledged to create a fund to help poor countries affected by climate change, but with no as-yet-specified dollar figure attached to it.

Try picturing a President Trump signing a budget bill, passed by a Republican-controlled Congress, that funds UN climate support for poor countries. It’s no slam dunk, to put it mildly.

However, on some aspects of energy and climate policy, Trump’s pro-pipeline position is actually closer to that of the Canadian government.

His stated support for the Keystone XL pipeline and likely support in the Line 5 dispute would likely be welcomed in Ottawa, though it’s too early to tell whether it would affect either pipeline: the former project is currently dead, and the latter is under dispute.

Other countries watching quietly, too

The Canadian government will not opine on these possibilities.

Nor will it comment on a consequential implication of Trump’s candidacy, one spelled out in a bluntly worded news lead from U.S. broadcaster NPR announcing Trump’s run: He tried to overthrow an election, and inspired a deadly riot to stay in office, and now he wants power again.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned Trump’s actions after the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Canada has plenty of company in its discretion.

Other U.S. allies told CBC News they’re not saying a word about Trump’s candidacy. Spain won’t comment, Germany won’t say anything on the record. Mexico did comment — only to say it’s preserving its longstanding policy of not interfering in U.S. politics.

One Canadian official, speaking on background, said that to weigh in on the return of any politician, even this politician, would be both inappropriate and ineffective.

Inappropriate because, the official said, Canadians wouldn’t appreciate that kind of foreign commentary on our own politics; and ineffective, because it would achieve nothing aside from damaging our country’s ability to deal with Republicans, at the federal and state level.

A just-retired Canadian diplomat strongly urges Ottawa to keep mum on this topic. While in some countries, it might make sense to voice concern about a political candidate, she said it makes no sense to do that right now in the U.S.

Just-retired diplomat: ‘Zero’ benefit to commenting on Trump

Louise Blais said she participated in weekly conferences with Canada’s U.S.-based diplomats and they never even discussed the idea of raising general concerns about Trump.

“This has never, ever, ever come up in those conversations,” said Blais, who was posted in Washington, the U.S. Southeast and in New York at the UN.

“There’s a sense that while it may feel good in the moment, and it may feel politically expedient at home, whatever we would say would have zero chance of actually effecting change. So the question is: why would we try to interfere if there won’t be a positive outcome anyway, and we’ve just complicated our relationship?” 

In addition to that, she said, Americans aren’t asking foreigners to speak up. Neither Democrats nor Republicans, she said, are looking to other countries to get involved in U.S. politics, unlike some countries where a political faction might plead for outside help.

If anything, she said, Canada should be looking to build out its relationships across the U.S. political spectrum: on the right, left, alt-right, far left, at the federal and state levels.

Trump, right, extends his hand to Trudeau in 2017 during their first meeting at the White House. After a tumultuous stretch, they managed to renegotiate NAFTA. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

She said hearing people’s thoughts, collecting their cell numbers and maintaining a dialogue over time is the essential work of diplomats.

Blais was one of the first Canadian officials to build connections with the original team around Trump in 2016, as a consul in the U.S. South, where she met policy advisors who later went on to become administration officials.

Toward the end of her diplomatic career, she set up meetings with some southern U.S. senators when Canada was lobbying for changes to an electric-vehicle tax credit.

So the plan, in Ottawa, is not to jeopardize relationships. 

In the past, events have played havoc with those plans. In late 2015, Trudeau referred to Trump’s then-proposed Muslim ban as ignorant, irresponsible and hateful.

As Trump became the Republican nominee, Trudeau became more guarded. That’s unlike a former Canadian ambassador to Washington who expressed a clear favourite during the 2000 U.S. election.

Some Republicans still felt Canadians talked too much during the 2016 campaign: Blais recalled one famous politician telling her back then that Ottawa had already undermined its relationship with the incoming president.

We’ll see if the silence holds. To torture an old saying, a two-year presidential campaign is an eternity in politics.

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