Just after having Dover sole and dessert with the President of China on Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump secretly unleashed a missile attack against an airfield in Syria.
Post-dinner, Trump urged “all civilized nations to end this war.”
It was a shocker, not the least of all to his house guest, President Xi Jinping of China.
To the world at large, the geopolitical fallout will be significant following weeks of confusing signals and mayhem in Washington.
“This changes everything,” said former Quebec Premier Jean Charest at The Economic Club of Canada lunch in Toronto on Friday.
He described it as a dramatic 180-degree pivot that strengthens Trump’s hand in all negotiations, including ones involving trade. Besides that, it gives Trump the moral high ground because the strike was in retaliation to alleged war crimes committed by Syria’s President Bashir Assad, who the U.S. says was responsible for a chemical weapons attack on civilians.
It also makes him appear stronger than former president Barack Obama, who threatened a similar retaliation for a chemical attack in 2013 but did not act unilaterally after Britain backed out.
Another political significance is that, in one fell swoop, Trump has pitted himself against Vladimir Putin for failing to prevent the use of chemical weapons by his ally in Syria. Russia immediately condemned the attack and warned of dangers in the relationship.
It means America’s back and that’s a good thing.
This in itself somewhat distances Trump from allegations that have dogged him concerning investigations into whether his team colluded with Putin to hack and harm Democrats during the election.
Going forward there will be no decoupling of foreign policies from economic ones. For instance, the top of the agenda on Friday with China was likely what Xi would do to neutralize the North Korean rogue regime as well as about trade concessions that could bring jobs back to the U.S. rustbelt.
China officially condemned Syria but also America’s attack. But everywhere else allies and trading partners, led by Canada, announced their support for their military intervention.
Oil and gold rallied but markets were skittish, given that consistency of message and actions do not characterize the Presidency thus far. Tough talk by Trump and his cabinet this week may be walked back next week as has happened many times before.
The timing was propitious too in order to get concessions from China, said hawk Senator John McCain. “I’m glad he’s talking to the Chinese President at the same time (as the attack against Syria).… It’s a nice coincidence.”
He added that the world must deal with Putin and with the “crazy fat kid” (North Korea’s Kim Jong-un) who’s “irrational” and has nuclear weapons.
McCain and others called for serious remedies concerning North Korea as well as against Putin for his support of Syria and invasion of Ukraine.
“We have to talk about Ukraine and about giving the Ukrainians lethal defensive weapons,” he said on MSNBC.
Next steps are unknown, but the Trump team made it clear that they want Assad removed and a multi-lateral solution to the Syrian catastrophe, a goal that has eluded the world for years.
If this is the path, then allies, and notably those enjoying trade surpluses, will be expected by this President to step up. This includes a quartet of countries — China, Germany, Japan and Mexico — who collectively represent a trade hemorrhage for the United States annually equivalent in size to the GDP of Massachusetts or nearly half-a-trillion dollars.
Canada is not in the trade cross-hairs despite intentions to “tweak” NAFTA.
“Canada is not a problem in terms of the U.S. trade deficit if you include services,” said former Canadian Trade Minister Jim Peterson at the Canada-U.S. Law Institute annual conference. “The U.S. has a trade surplus with us.”
But the U.S. deficit with the quartet is a priority: China’s surplus in goods and services with the U.S. was US$309.7 billion in 2016; Germany’s was US$67.7 billion; Mexico’s US$61.7 billion and Japan’s $56.3 billion.
Canada has trade deficits with these four plus with the U.S. Even so, while NAFTA talks will be aimed mostly at Mexico, Canada may be sideswiped.
Fortunately, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has established good relations with the Americans. As former U.S. Ambassador Bruce Heyman noted at a recent trade conference, “no country is closer to the West Wing than Canada.”
This combined with goodwill and socio-economic integration will mitigate attempts by American protectionists toward Canada’s protected agricultural, financial, or other sectors. But Canada will have to spend more on defence than it currently does, billions more per year to curry the favour of Washington.
Even so from a global security viewpoint, the world can breathe easier now, said former Canadian external affairs minister John Baird.
“It means America’s back,” he said. “And that’s a good thing.”
First published National Post April 6, 2017