After bashing China incessantly on the campaign trail and through his first 80 or so days in office, Donald Trump appeared to back down once it became clear that he would need Xi Jinping’s help avoiding a nuclear standoff with North Korea. “Why would I call China a currency manipulator when they are working with us on the North Korean problem? We will see what happens!” he tweeted last week. The Trump administration is still making some vaguely nationalist noises in Beijing’s direction, launching a dumping investigation into China and other steel producers. But for the most part—for the time being—China is no longer Public Enemy No. 1. That’s a problem for Trump, who needs targets to bully like living things need air. And so with China off the table, he’s decided to look north.
Canada, for those of you who need a refresher, is one of the United States’ closest allies. It is the No. 1 buyer of our goods, with “a largely balanced trade relationship, totaling $635 billion in 2016.” Its prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has charitably said that President Trump, who appears to be perpetually in the midst of a temper tantrum, “actually listens and is open to changing his mind.” That same prime minister graciously treated First Daughter Ivanka Trump to a night at the theater in March (his wife was there, too, and he was presumably a perfect gentleman). In the first three months of Trump’s presidency, the nation has “flooded Washington with envoys,” including ambassador David MacNaughton, who praised the White House as “delightful to deal with.”
In short, Canada is the perfect neighbor—the kind you hope never moves away, leaving inconsiderate jerks who play music at all hours of the night and block your driveway in their place. So, naturally, Donald Trump has decided to treat Canada like crap.
On Monday, Trump hit Canadian softwood lumber with a 20 percent tariff that could go as high as 24 percent, with the Commerce Department claiming, according to the Times, that Canada has been “improperly subsidizing the sale of softwood lumber products to the United States,” a charge the country vehemently denies. (Fun fact: the tariff “will make it more expensive to build American homes.”) On Tuesday, the tweeter in chief escalated the situation by shouting on his favorite social-media platform, “Canada has made business for our dairy farmers in Wisconsin and other border states very difficult. We will not stand for this. Watch!”
Political reporter Paul McLeod notes that Canada’s closed dairy market “protects Canadian producers of milk and cheese by strictly limiting foreign imports” and the “America First“ president doesn’t want American farmers to be “shut out from the Canadian market.” Unfortunately for Donny, who apparently has no time for a “Canada First” dairy market, it’s not as simple as banging on his iPhone about milk.
The [Canada] dairy industry is a club of about 12,000 dairy farms that wield immense power in Canadian politics. The protectionist system of price controls—known as supply management—is one of the sacred cows of Canadian trade policy.
The Canadian government has recently pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to appease the dairy industry because a negotiated free trade deal with Europe would allow new imports of European cheese. That contentious deal still leaves domestic dairy farmers in control of 96% of the Canadian market. In other words, if you want to start a trade war with Canada, go after the dairy industry.
And while Canada will not simply roll over and let Trump tell it how to run its dairy industry, the idea that the U.S. president will make Canada the target of his war on trade imbalances strikes many as just as absurd as it sounds. Or as political scientist Ian Bremmer puts it:
If you're worried about global trade imbalances, focus on China.
If you want to rough up a school kid for his lunch money, blame Canada.
— ian bremmer (@ianbremmer) April 25, 2017