Now that I have your attention, I’ll explain.
I always included a crisis management exercise in my public management course, in which I presented the students with a challenging but plausible future scenario and asked them, assuming the role of the relevant government, to devise an action plan.
The Scenario and Assignment
Last spring, shortly after the lockdown began, I envisioned a scenario in which the US successfully controlled the pandemic, economic growth resumed, Donald Trump was reelected with a clear margin in the electoral and popular vote, and the Republicans took control of both houses of Congress. At a post-election press conference he had this exchange:
“Lyndsay Duncombe (CBC): Mr. President, could you tell us something about relations with Canada for your new administration. What are your priorities?
President Trump: You look like a nice person, Lyndsay, but the CBC is into fake news just as much as CNN and the lying New York Times.
Frankly, we have a bunch of problems with the Canadian Government. You guys are still spending only 1.3 % of GDP on defense, and you don’t seem to be making any progress to meet the NATO target of 2 percent. You’ve still left the door open to Huawei’s involvement in your 5G network, despite our warnings that they are a tool of the Chinese state. Speaking of Huawei, your courts are taking an awful long time decide about extraditing Meng Wanzhou. We want her brought back to the US so we can lock her up. And I see your government supports California’s job-killing automobile emissions and fuel economy standards. If we can’t get some of these issues resolved favorably – and soon – we may have no choice but to impose new tariffs.
Justin seems like a nice guy but he’s actually weak and two-faced. As soon as Canadians have a chance, I hope they elect Erin O’Toole as prime minister leading a Conservative government. He will make Canada great again!”
You are Katie Telford, chief of staff to Justin Trudeau. What do you advise the government to do to respond to these comments, in terms of both i) any public reaction the prime minister or others will make, ii) contingency planning for the government?
Reflections in Retrospect
Let’s look at the assignment with nine months of hindsight. I expected the outcome of the election would turn on Covid; had the US been effective at combating it, Trump would likely have been reelected. In a discussion of US foreign policy if Trump were reelected, David Frum wrote that he would treat the EU as the enemy and Canada and Mexico as dependencies (a euphemism for colonies). The tone and content of Trump’s hypothetical answer in the scenario is certainly consistent with Frum’s forecast.
In a recent article about Joe Biden’s modus operandi as President-elect, Toronto Star columnist Susan Delacourt outlines three basic tactics the Trudeau Government has followed in dealing with President Trump” “Don’t engage Trump directly, don’t make it personal and, whenever possible, detour around the president, using wider networks and long-established rules of order.”
I think these tactics are wise and provide a good starting point for an answer to my question. However, there are some caveats.
Environmental and trade policy issues provide opportunities for the Canadian Government to engage with alternative networks. But re-election and support in both houses of Congress increase Trump’s power relative to that of networks of his opponents.
Canadian defence spending doesn’t seem to be the type of issue that would be amenable to a wider network approach. I see Trump’s demand that Canada increase its defence spending as a justification to force Canada to buy more American hardware, especially the hugely expensive F35 stealth fighter. The difference between 1.3 percent and 2 percent of Canadian GDP is $15 billion (Canadian), a huge sum. If I were being pressured by the US (and perhaps NATO too) to spend more on design, I would make sure that imported hardware had a large component manufactured in Canada, or I would prefer Canadian hardware to imported hardware. Finally, I would develop an ambitious experience and education program for youth and young adults, placed under the aegis of the Department of National Defence. It could thus be called “defence spending.”
Trump’s support for Erin O’Toole is egregious, but something he has done regarding elections in other countries. I think Delacourt is right that Trudeau should say nothing. He might try to convince the leaders of other parties to join in a collective statement that Canadian elections must be free of foreign interference. On the other hand, if re-elected, Trump’s approval ratings in Canada might increase, especially on the part of supporters of the Conservative Party. Erin O’Toole might be happy to say nothing and enjoy a “Trump bump.”
In reality, the long international Trumpian nightmare is almost over. This scenario suggests how painful for Canadians another four years might have been.