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The Trump-Trudeau argument about steel tariffs and the War of 1812, explained

The US and Canada are close allies, but it wasn’t always that way.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apparently objected to the characterization of his country as a potential military adversary during a contentious phone call with President Trump over steel and aluminum tariffs Wednesday, prompting Trump to retort, “Didn’t you guys burn down the White House?”

CNN reporter Jim Acosta. who broke the story, characterizes this as yet another Trump misstatement, noting that it was British forces who did the burning.

In truth, this is probably a case where the “fake news media” is being too hard on Trump. Canadian forces were belligerents in the war, and not on the American side. Nitpicking about whether those forces were specifically involved in the attack on Washington is a little bit beside the point.

The War of 1812 certainly does support Trump’s underlying view that things change in international relations. The US and UK are close allies today, but 200 years ago, the United States and the British Empire were fierce rivals.

At the same time, this also underscores a problem with Trump’s approach to the steel and aluminum issue. Trump has relied on vaguely defined national security powers to justify the imposition of the taxes on imported steel and aluminum from close US allies like Canada. There’s precious little reason to believe that he actually thinks there’s a national security risk involving imports of steel and aluminum. He wants to impose the tariffs, and existing law does not give him the option of doing so simply over his interest in trade balance or leverage in NAFTA negotiations.

But America’s peaceful relationships with its neighbors, though well-entrenched, are not a law of physics. The relationship with Canada was contentious in the past and could be contentious again in the future — as Trump inherently argues. Reckless action like invoking national security powers to damage Canada’s economy endanger the climate of peaceful coexistence that prevails in the broader North Atlantic region.

The War of 1812, explained

Paul M. Rapin de Thoyras

The backdrop to the War of 1812 was essentially twofold.

  • On the one hand, the British Empire was, at the time, enmeshed in a multifaceted global military conflict with Napoleon’s French Empire. Britain more or less ruled at sea while France dominated the European continent, and Britain was attempting to use its sea power to strangle the French economy.
  • On the other hand, domestic partisan politics in the early American republic featured a fundamental disagreement about America’s international alignment. Federalists, led by George Washington, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton, favored a close relationship with America’s former colonial overlords, while the Democratic-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe, favored alignment with revolutionary France.

These two issues were persistently interrelated for the first 25 years of American history because the worldwide military conflict between Britain and France made it exceptionally difficult, in practice, for the United States to compromise and stay neutral.

During the Adams administration, America got embroiled in what’s known as the Quasi-War with France, and then once the Democratic-Republicans took over after the election of 1800, things started drifting in the other direction.

The 1803 Louisiana Purchase, for example, was both a step on the road to Manifest Destiny and also part of a pro-France foreign policy. The United States gave France valuable cash in exchange for land that, due to British sea power, France no longer had any real ability to control or exploit. Meanwhile, American possession of the territory ensured that even if France didn’t have the land, Britain couldn’t get it either. An anti-French US administration might have decided that rather than pay France for the land, they should team up with the British and seize it.

At any rate, by 1812, the US-British relationship had deteriorated to the point of war.

The proximate causes of the dispute were British efforts to prevent US ships from trading with Europe, British naval captains “impressing” sailors on captured American vessels and forcing them to serve on British fleets, and some boundary disputes between the US and what we would now call Canada (more on this later). More broadly, American war hawks believed a military conflict would be a good opportunity to conquer both Canada and Florida, which at the time was under Spanish rule.

The resulting war did not go well for the Americans in military terms, though the evolving geopolitical situation allowed the US to achieve many of its war aims anyway.

So what happened? Did Canada burn the White House?

The centerpiece of American military strategy was a plan to invade and conquer a significant portion of what is now Canada.

At the time, however, there was no such country as Canada. Instead, the territory in question was two separate British colonies — Upper Canada, roughly corresponding to modern-day Ontario, and Lower Canada, roughly corresponding to modern-day Quebec.

American leaders assumed that this conquest would be a cakewalk (Jefferson called it “a matter of marching”), but the United States lacked a professional military and had essentially no local support. A large share of English-speaking Canadians were, at the time, Loyalist émigrés who had fled the United States during the Revolutionary War. French-speaking Canadians, meanwhile, though not necessarily huge fans of British rule were largely conservative and Catholic — distrusting both the American republic and its revolutionary ally in France.

The various invasion forces were beaten back rather easily, and Britain was then able to use its dominant sea power to mount a successful military campaign in the Chesapeake Bay area. This amphibious assault managed to free thousands of enslaved African Americans and to briefly capture the city of Washington and burn the White House.

From a British point of view, however, the essential problem of the war was that the empire had no real capacity to mount a durable occupation of American territory — territory that was vast, distant from London, and peripheral to the empire’s main interest in beating France. The Treaty of Ghent that ultimately ended the war was fairly favorable to the United States, especially on the impressment issue, and featured the British agreeing to return various pieces of territory in Maine and around the Mississippi River that they’d seized during the war. The United States, meanwhile, obviously didn’t succeed in taking over Canada.

In terms of the specifics of Trump’s contention, it does not appear that Canadians were literally involved in the capture of Washington. But Canadians did fight in the war, they fought on the British side, and Canada-related issues were very central to the conflict. The nation of Canada, however, did not exist at the time, and it was decades before the US gave up on the idea of conquering Canadian territory and incorporating it.

The US-Canadian relationship has changed drastically

The next great development in US-Canadian relations came from the election of James K. Polk in 1844.

American politics in the early 1840s was deadlocked over the question of whether the United States should seek to annex Texas and other Mexican-ruled territories. Expansion was deeply appealing to many Americans on a variety of levels, but Northerners and anti-slavery types worried about adding so much additional southern territory to the United States.

Polk proposed to resolve this dilemma by also adding a bunch of northern land by mounting an aggressive claim to possession of the entire “Oregon Country” in what’s now the US Pacific Northwest and the Canadian province of British Columbia. Campaigning with the slogan “54-40 or fight,” Polk was elected on a promise to either get the British to hand over the entire territory or else go to war with them.


He instead settled on a compromise establishing the current boundary at the 49th parallel. In retrospect, we know that the 1846 Oregon Treaty establishing the compromise border would be one of the great diplomatic success stories of all time, laying the groundwork for lasting peace and establishing what is today by far the world’s longest unmilitarized border zone.

At the time, however, it was by no means clear that Americans’ appetite for expansion was whetted. In 1854, the US grabbed another slice of Mexico (the Gadsden Purchase) to create a better route for a southern transcontinental railroad line, and it was commonplace for Southern political leaders at the time to speak openly of their desire to seize more slave territory in Cuba or elsewhere in Latin America. To the extent that the country was unable to forcefully expand further, it was because Americans were busy fighting each other, first in “Bleeding Kansas” and then in the full-fledged American Civil War.

During that war, the British Empire (which by now was diplomatically aligned with France) adopted a broadly pro-Confederate posture. Consequently, once the Union won the war, officials in London were worried that a reunified United States, now firmly under Republican Party political control and in possession of an enormous army, would seek revenge by launching a new round of expansionism. In 1865, the United States canceled the Canadian-American Reciprocity Treaty that allowed raw materials from the then-separate colonies of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, and “Canada” (i.e., present-day Ontario and Quebec) to enter the US duty-free.

This was seen as very plausibly a prelude to war, and constituted one of the motivations for the passage of the British North America Act of 1867 that for the first time created the self-governing Dominion of Canada, comprising Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. The following year came “Rupert’s Land” (basically today’s Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan), and in 1871, British Columbia joined the party.

The growing sense of Canada as a self-governing peer entity rather than a string of British colonies helped dissuade Americans from seeing it as territory worth gobbling up, and in the late 19th century, the US focused instead on seizing Spanish colonies and becoming an imperial power. The British, meanwhile, pivoted their own foreign policy starting in the late 1890s and began to deliberately cultivate an improved relationship with the United States, which culminated in US support for the Allies during World War I.

As late as the 1920s, however, the US military was still drawing up plans for a potential war with the British Empire, and the centerpiece of the scheme — War Plan Red — was a rapid-fire conquest of Canada.

library of congress

Needless to say, this never happened. Instead, Canada continued to gain more practical autonomy from the United Kingdom, the US then fought alongside Canada and the UK in World War II, and the exigencies of the Cold War led to the creation of NATO and the United States and Canada formally committing to come to each other’s defense during wartime.

The US and Canada are extremely close allies

To Trudeau’s point, the US-Canadian alliance has at this point endured for decades and is extraordinarily strong. Though sentimental favorites like the UK or even Israel are sometimes cited as America’s closest ally, on a practical level, the amount of security integration between the US and Canada is without parallel. You can see it in everything from cooperation on NORAD to jets landing in Canada after being diverted out of American airspace after 9/11.

The US and Canada even have completely integrated electrical grids, with the United States relying on large amounts of imported Canadian electricity to keep the lights on.

It is, under the circumstances, genuinely ridiculous to portray US dependence on imported Canadian metal as a potential threat to American national security.

But this is precisely the point. The climate of peace between the US and Canada has allowed the countries to integrate their economies in ways that are highly efficient — Canada has tremendous hydropower resources that would go to waste without American customers, and the United States would need to spend a lot more money and create a lot more pollution to get the power from some other source — and serve to further entrench the atmosphere of cooperation.

Yet while the relationship is certainly beneficial, it’s not necessarily intrinsic or unchanging. The proximity that fosters friendship today was once a source of incredible tension, and while shared values helped align the US and Canada on the same side in wars against Germany and the Cold War with the USSR, Donald Trump has seemed consistently hostile to the idea of an alliance of Western democracies and appears much more comfortable with a whole range of authoritarian regimes. We’re obviously not about to enact War Plan Red over a 20 percent tax on aluminum, but shabby treatment of an ally and alarming rhetoric about the possibility of military conflict tend to erode the work of generations.

Genuine US-Canadian enmity seems essentially inconceivable today, but when the White House was rubble 200 years ago, the emergence of a strong alliance seemed equally so. Things changed for the better once, but they could easily change for the worse in the future if they continue to be handled carelessly.

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