Since the blow-up between President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at last week’s G-7 summit in Canada, the default position of the anti-Trump commentariat has been to compare Trump’s angry response to Trudeau, the leader of the U.S.’s closest ally, on the one hand, to his gracious treatment of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, on the other hand.
The comparison, in and of itself, is ridiculous.
Kim is the leader of a longtime U.S. enemy. Just last summer, fear of war with North Korea surged as “Little Rocket Man” tested intercontinental ballistic missiles presumably capable of reaching the U.S. As Vanity Fair’s T.A. Franks noted, flattering mass murdering enemy leaders is something U.S. leaders have often felt compelled to do to advance U.S. interests.
Comparing the way Trump treats the two men, then, is just as pointless as comparing apples and oranges.
A much more apt, and enlightening, analysis would be to consider Trump’s disparate treatment of two allies — for instance, Trudeau and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Both Trudeau and Netanyahu lead U.S. allies. But whereas Trump and his advisors sharply rebuked Trudeau for his angry assault following the G-7 summit last week, Netanyahu and Trump enjoy close, intense, and mutually supportive ties. Far from attacking one another, Trump and Netanyahu consistently back one another up in their public statements.
What accounts for the disparity? More broadly, what does the disparity in treatment tell us about Trump’s expectations from foreign leaders? What does it teach us about his foreign policy outlook more generally?
Earlier this week, the New Yorker published a 5,000-word article by Adam Entous chronicling, among other things, the way that Netanyahu and Trump forged their close relationship. In “Donald Trump’s New World Order: How the President, Israel and the Gulf States plan to fight Iran – and leave the Palestinians and the Obama years behind,” Entous details the deterioration of relations between Netanyahu and Barack Obama over his eight years in office.
While Entous ignores the extraordinary lengths to which Netanyahu went between 2009 and 2014 to develop a cooperative relationship with Obama, (see here, here, here, here, here, here, for instance), he discusses in vast detail the steps Netanyahu adopted to mitigate the damage Obama’s policies in relation to Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood caused Israel.
Finally, Entous turns his attention to how Netanyahu and Trump’s relationship was built, and why it is so strong.
Entous notes that by 2015, Netanyahu had given up on trying to appease Obama, for two reasons.
First, in early 2014, Obama concluded an interim nuclear deal with Iran that did not require Iran to cease all uranium enrichment activities. When its details were revealed, Israel realized Obama had no intention of preventing Iran from developing nuclear technologies that would enable it to develop a nuclear arsenal.
Second, in the summer of 2014, Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teenagers. In its follow-up to the massacre, Hamas launched a massive missile and rocket war against Israel.
Israel referred to the war that ensued as Operation Protective Edge. Qatar and Turkey served as Hamas’s diplomatic representatives and defenders.
Rather than side with Israel in its war against the Hamas terror regime, as all of his predecessors had done to varying degrees, Obama sided with Hamas and its state sponsors, Qatar and Turkey, against Israel.
Obama insisted that Netanyahu accept Hamas’s ceasefire conditions and walk away with no guarantee that Hamas would end its rocket and missile offensive against Israel.
Obama’s embrace of Iran and effective alliance with Hamas through Turkey and Qatar were the last straws for Israel.
But Obama’s behavior had not come as a surprise. Sensing, earlier on, where the wind was blowing, Netanyahu had already been working to sidestep Obama by developing an alliance with America’s other spurned Middle Eastern allies: Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia. Like Israel, these three regimes were mortally threatened by Iran. Like Israel — indeed, to an even greater degree than Israel — these regimes viewed the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies and offshoots, including Hamas, as existential threats.
Entous provides a fairly detailed description of Israel’s diplomatic moves in regard to the UAE. As he notes, the center of gravity of the operational alliance between Israel and the Sunnis was their joint effort to undermine Iran’s nuclear program and blunt the impact of Obama’s efforts to appease Iran. But their joint operations were also directed against the Muslim Brotherhood, its branches, and their state sponsors, including Turkey and Qatar.
As a consequence, the first time the Israeli-Sunni alliance came to public attention was during Operation Protective Edge.
As Obama insisted Israel accept the Turkish-Qatari ceasefire offer – that is, Hamas’s ceasefire conditions — Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia all sided with Israel against Hamas – and Obama. They rejected Hamas’s ceasefire conditions and embraced Israel’s positions entirely. Their stunning public support for Israel compelled Obama to walk back his pressure on Israel.
As for Iran, the Israel-Sunni operational alliance was important for two reasons. First, it empowered Netanyahu to defy openly Obama on the Iran nuclear deal. That defiance was expressed most powerfully when Netanyahu detailed the problems with the nuclear deal in an address to a special joint session of Congress in March 2015. Second, the operational ties between Israel and the Sunni Gulf states facilitated Mossad and other operations against Iranian plans and capabilities.
As Entous notes, in Netanyahu’s first meeting with Trump, which took place in September 2016 at the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York, Netanyahu and Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer presented then-candidate Trump with Netanyahu’s vision of a new U.S. regional posture in the Middle East. Such a U.S. posture could be based on the U.S. leading the operational alliance that Netanyahu had developed with the Sunnis.
Entous writes that Trump’s campaign CEO, Steve Bannon, was “blown away” by their presentation. A former Trump advisor told Entous that the two Israelis “had thought this through – this wasn’t half-baked. This was well articulated and it dovetailed exactly with our thinking.”
According to Entous, the “advisor credited Netanyahu and Dermer with inspiring the new administration’s approach to the Middle East.”
In his first trip as president, Trump did, in fact, take the lead in the alliance Netanyahu formed. Recognizing that American interests were better served by confronting Iran and Hamas than by strengthening them, Trump flew first to Saudi Arabia, and then continued on directly to Israel. Trump embraced and built upon the foundations Netanyahu had developed in order to advance Trump’s own vision of American needs in the Middle East. In particular, Trump charged U.S. allies with taking serious steps to advance the common goal of constraining and defeating Iran and Sunni jihadists.
Trump’s close relationship with Netanyahu owes, then, to two things. First, by developing Israel’s ties with the Sunni Arab states, Netanyahu demonstrated that he is capable of acting to defend Israel and shared U.S.-Israeli interests, even without U.S. assistance. That showed Trump that Israel is an ally, not a protectorate of the U.S. — and that Netanyahu is a partner, not a burden, for the U.S. in the post-Obama Middle East.
Second, by presenting Trump with a fully thought-out strategy for rebuilding U.S. leadership in the Arab world in the aftermath of Obama’s embrace of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, based on the ties Israel had already developed with the Sunnis, Netanyahu gave Trump a relatively low-cost option for replacing Obama’s policies with ones that better suited Trump’s understanding of American needs and interests.
Since that initial meeting, Netanyahu and Trump have continued to expand their ties, and their support for one another’s efforts to achieve common strategic goals.
This then brings us to Trudeau.
During the 2016 campaign, although Trump made abandoning Obama’s Iran nuclear deal and moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem key foreign policy goals, updating international trade deals was a much more significant campaign issue. And one of Trump’s central pledges to his voters was his vow to improve, or walk away from, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which President Bill Clinton had signed with Canada and Mexico.
Whereas Netanyahu — out of concern for both developing strategic ties with the incoming Trump administration and for mitigating the damage Obama’s policies had wrought on Israel’s national security — presented Trump with clearly articulated plans for achieving Trump’s own goals, Trudeau chose to ignore trade, despite a certain looming showdown over the issue with the Trump administration.
In other words: rather than accept that once Trump was elected, the Canadians would need to accept a new trade relationship with the Americans, Trudeau adopted positions on NAFTA that made it impossible to reach a deal.
For the past six months, Trudeau has managed to alienate U.S. trade representative Ambassador Robert Lighthizer. Canadian representatives have refused to consider, let alone respect, reasonable U.S. concerns about trade tariffs, automobile manufacturing, and other key aspects of NAFTA and bilateral trade.
Instead of seeking compromises that could advance the interests of both countries, or at a minimum limit the damage that new U.S. trade policies would cause the Canadian economy, Trudeau pretended away the issue — hoping, apparently, that Trump would disappear if Trudeau just ignored him.
Consequently, rather than engaging seriously with American negotiators — as the Mexicans are — Trudeau has added insult to injury by slapping progressive social engineering provisions regarding indigenous, gender, and worker rights onto Canada’s trade policies. Trudeau is apparently attempting to use bilateral trade to dictate the Trump administration’s social policy.
In other words, Trudeau has embraced posturing over substantive policymaking. Rather than presenting Trump with a deal that could make sense for the U.S. and Canada, Trudeau has presented himself as a progressive hero, standing up to the Left’s greatest enemy.
Given Trudeau’s behavior, it was just a matter of time before trade talks between Washington and Ottowa blew up. Canada’s leader offered Trump no alternative to confrontation.
The disparity between Trump’s treatment of Israel and Canada tells us two important things.
First, when Trump criticizes American allies for expecting the United States to defend them and pay for the privilege, he isn’t doing it to blow off steam. Trump believes that for alliances to be meaningful, they have to be alliances between independent states that come together to pursue common interests.
True, the U.S. is the strongest party. But it cannot be expected to do what its allies could do themselves yet refuse to do. When Trump discusses NATO reform, there can be little doubt that he envisions an alliance of states that actually defend themselves.
Second, Trump’s disparate treatment of Netanyahu and Trudeau shows that the conventional, contemptuous view of Trump’s foreign policy is wrong.
This week, the Atlantic dismissed the Trump Doctrine as “We’re America, Bitch!” (albeit quoting an administration official).
Trump’s actual doctrine is that the U.S. will help its allies and foes when they pursue goals the U.S. shares. And the U.S. will spurn allies – and enemies — who expect America to do their bidding as they mistake posturing for policymaking, and attitude for work.