Justin Trudeau’s offending words of resistance to President Trump’s aluminum and steel tariffs contained a cultural tic common to his people. Vowing to retaliate, the prime minister proclaimed that “Canadians are polite, we’re reasonable, but we also will not be pushed around.”
By wording his outrage this way, Trudeau illustrated how Canadians of his sort are almost pathologically unable to articulate a sense of self without a gratuitous dig at the United States. When one views U.S.–Canada relations as an existential game of compare-and-contrast, one does not call Canadians “polite” and “reasonable” without implying that Americans are neither.
Canada, where I have lived my entire life, can be a difficult country to understand for those who love the United States, as I do. It is, in some ways, the most anti-American country on earth. As a polity founded in explicit opposition to the United States — first the Revolution, then the republic — there exists no other nation that has invested as much energy in crafting a sense of patriotism that holds the rejection of America so central.
On the other hand, much of Canada’s patriotic project has clearly failed and seems absurd for having tried. By any cultural metric, Canada is part of a contiguous Anglo-American continental civilization that predates either nation-state. Canada’s effort to exist as a counter-revolutionary, illiberal, inegalitarian, colonial society was short-lived, and was always taken far more seriously by its rulers than by its subjects. For all the self-flattery of Trudeau-types about how Canadians are kinder or more gentle or whatever, real-world Canadians remain largely indistinguishable from Americans in flaw and virtue, a reminder of government’s limited capacity to reshape the nature of a people.
This does not undermine the significance of the American Revolution but serves as its long-term vindication. The Revolution created ideas and institutions best suited to the independent, individualistic nature of Anglo-American life, and over time, Canada incorporated virtually all of its principles, from federalism to a bill of rights, into its own constitutional order (albeit through imperfect emulation). Absent divergence on these big questions, Canadians are told to find nationalism through juvenile comparisons such as whose citizens are “nicer.”
The effort to cast Canada as sharply distinctive still has its boosters, of course. The U.S. Left constantly inflates the Canadian government’s divergence in certain public-policy realms into differences far more profound than say, those separating Alabama from Connecticut. Explanations are offered that lean on false and romantic generalizations about a supposed “Canadian character” rather than an accurate read of how Canada’s worse constitution enshrines fewer of the checks and balances that soften the scope and dogmatism of American legislation.
The American Right incorporates similar conclusions into its own thinking, dismissing Canada as just another exotic welfare state. In this context, Justin Trudeau may truly be one of the least helpful leaders Canada has ever produced, given his reinforcement of every negative stereotype about effete Canadian progressives. (Those fond of imagining Trudeau as his country’s uncontested avatar, however, should recall that his approval rating sits lower than President Trump’s.)
Yet from a higher view, Canada and the United States remain countries more similar in the ways that count than any two others. Which is why the current trade spat between their leaders — and the possibility of any deeper breakdown of economic ties — is uniquely disheartening.
The White House should be wary of provoking Canadian anti-Americanism to the point where the country seeks China’s embrace.
Canada lacks any capacity for, or interest in, being Washington’s adversary. We share a land mass and through integrated defense systems such as NORAD protect the same security perimeter. Energy self-sufficiency is similarly continental, reliant on cross-border infrastructure such as the Keystone XL pipeline. As fresh attention is paid to cynical “asylum shoppers” sneaking across the Canadian border, we are reminded of the degree to which immigration enforcement remains unavoidably continental, too.
Deepening Canadian–U.S. trade through lower tariffs, harmonized regulation, and easier cross-border commerce, embodied in a long-term, bilateral agreement, should be the biggest no-brainer for any U.S. administration interested in what President Trump calls “free, fair, and reciprocal trade.” Thirty-five states have Canada as their biggest export market, and Canadian industry is so compliantly integrated into America’s economic regime that it possesses only a handful of sectors seeking to compete with or undermine their American counterparts — Canadian dairy being more the exception than the rule.
A thickened border born from a prolonged period of vindictiveness or indifference between the two nations’ leaders is sabotage of a shared project. Premature American tariffs could push Canada’s already fragile economy into recession, while Canada’s reciprocal tariffs are explicitly designed to hurt a wide swath of American industries in politically important states. Though Canada will never present a serious geopolitical threat to America, the White House should be wary of provoking Canadian anti-Americanism to the point where the country seeks China’s embrace, an idea the Canadian elite has long been toying with.
In the aftermath of the recent G-7 summit, the Left has spouted tendentious outrage about President Trump offending Justin Trudeau while groveling to Kim Jong-un. But alliances aren’t built on good manners alone. Trump’s Canada policy needs to do more than avoid hurting the Canadian prime minister’s feelings; it needs to appreciate Canada’s indispensability in fulfilling the president’s goal of national sovereignty and self-sufficiency.
“America First” is more than the agenda of a government, after all — it’s the goal of a civilization.