This Means War – Is Trudeau Ready?

(Betteridge’s law says “no”.)

Last week, American president Donald Trump announced two major tariffs on Canadian aluminum and steel. This was a watershed moment in the relationship between the two countries, who have long shared a highly cooperative diplomacy and a tightly integrated economy. We are now in the midst of a trade war, and that requires a major shift in perspective. In the upper echelons of business, much is made of the difference between a peacetime CEO and a wartime CEO. The analogy is drawn from politics of course, and now we have an opportunity to see the original essence of that analogy in practice, as Canada shifts diplomatically from peace to war. The question of the moment then, is whether Justin Trudeau is ready for it?

Trudeau’s first two years as Prime Minister have been characterized by positivity, just like his campaign. He continues to talk about opportunity, growth, and inclusion every chance he gets. He is, in other words, the very picture of a peacetime leader. But peacetime leaders tend to get crushed in times of war; just ask Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister leading up to World War Two. Like Trudeau he talked a good early game, pushing back against Germany when possible but also accommodating them in the name of a broader peace. Like Trudeau, Chamberlain combined calculated displays of strength and resolve with a general flavour of good will. His policies were widely popular among the electorate. And like Trudeau, Chamberlain was not ready for war.

Barely nine months in to the second world war, after a string of disasters culminating in a wholesale retreat from Norway, Chamberlain resigned. His replacement was none other than Sir Winston Churchill, a war-time leader if there ever was one. Churchill was everything that Chamberlain was not: one of the world’s greatest orators, direct, focused, and completely unwilling to back down. Where Chamberlain was diplomatic, refined, and heavily invested in keeping the peace, Churchill was a leader with only one goal: to win the war. He stuck to his guns even when his choices were massively unpopular, which in fact they were at the time. He was appointed Prime Minister on Chamberlain’s resignation, not elected, and lost the post at the very next public election.

So what does this mean for Canada today? I suppose it is possible that Trudeau will be able to pivot, transitioning from a peacetime role to a wartime one. If he can pull that off then he will likely go down in history as one of Canada’s greatest leaders. However, it seems unlikely. The required shift in perspective would be very much out of character, and his initial response to the tariffs has been… tepid. Retaliatory tariffs, yes, but dollar-for-dollar; literally a call, not a raise, and one that (per Coyne) will harm Canada far more than it has any persuasive power over the United States.

If Trudeau cannot pivot, then we are in for a rough couple of years. Barring a true catastrophe, Trudeau is unlikely to resign before next year’s election, but there is no-one currently on the ballot with the necessary capabilities. The NDP have always been a peacetime party, and Jagmeet Singh is no exception. Andrew Scheer was elected leader of the conservatives as a direct response to Trudeau, in an effort to win back some of the voters turned off by Harper’s determination and negativity. Ironically for them, (and for me, as somebody who voted against him in the 2015 election) Stephen Harper is now the Prime Minister we need.

Up until this moment, I have been generally happy with Trudeau as Prime Minister; he was a welcome breath of fresh air after so many years of Harper, and is generally closer to my positions on policy. Today, I wish we’d given Mr. Harper one more term.

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Aspects of the Uncool

John Scalzi recently wrote an interesting explanation of what he sees as the difference between being “cool” and not, which I think is worth a read. While it’s possible to pick nits or disagree with his definitions, I’m not here to do that; language is descriptive, not prescriptive. Instead, I wanted to talk about how not cool I am (on his definitions) and what that means for me.

Scalzi defines “cool”ness as being effectively self-contained in your personhood, which he distinguishes from confidence by talking about how much we care about what other people think of us. I believe this effectively mirrors my discussion of confidence vs security which I included as part of my synthesis from Principle-Centered Leadership. On this definition of coolness, I (like Scalzi himself) am very, deeply, uncool. I care very much what other people think of me, and I lack much of that self-anchored security necessary for personal stability. I am, fundamentally, afraid of the world where somebody doesn’t like me and so I do my best to be likeable, to be malleable and pleasant and nice.

This is not, I think a particularly uncommon way to be; most people like to be liked, because most people need to be needed. Certainly it is a matter of degree, and not black and white, and there must be at least a little of this in all of us. What this means for me though (and presumably for other people in whom this trait is particularly strong) is that I become very passive and indirectly indecisive. If you ask me where I’d like to go for dinner, I will likely waffle, hedge, hem and haw. To me internally, it feels like I legitimately have no preference, I’ll eat whatever. There is a certain extent to which this is true as I am not a picky eater, but there is also a certain extent to which this indecision is a reflection of my passive uncoolness.

As a matter of uncoolness, my indecisiveness is an active likeableness-generating mechanism. If I don’t have a strong preference, then whoever is asking the question will be more likely to have their preferences met. When I then agree and happily go along with their request, that builds rapport between us and elevates their mood. If instead I were to express my own preference, that risks generating conflict, which automatically feels threatening.

Aspects of Conflict

It is easy to read into this that I don’t feel comfortable dealing with conflict, and there is a certain degree to which this is true, but it is hardly a blanket rule. In purely technical conversations I am happy and comfortable being firm in my convictions and arguing a point, both because the process is heavily factual/empirical, and because the environment for these debates is usually one of mutual collaborative respect. We may disagree, but we both acknowledge that we’re working toward the same goal and simply need to figure out exactly what trade-offs allow us to get there most effectively.

Even on deeper, more personal topics like religion I will prefer conflict to completely reversing my values. If you push me, I will admit to being an atheist and explain my rationale behind that even to a strongly religious audience; I won’t flat-out-lie. But I am much more likely to avoid the topic, or lie by omission. Since I grew up as a fairly religiously aware child, it’s easy for me to… “drop hints” which socially signal a certain affiliation, without ever actually saying anything untrue. As a child who also grew up reading a great deal of fantasy literature, you can bet that learned a lot of tricks from Robert Jordan’s Aes Sedai.

Practically, this has a couple of effects. I get along with almost everybody, but I make a poor leader except in purely technical situations with clear answers. I can be indecisive and prone to waffling. Fundamentally, I am insecure and lack self-trust. I am afraid of being in a state of deep interpersonal conflict.

Fear of Conflict

This fear of conflict does not feel unnatural to me, though clearly it is not universally shared. Surely conflict is not pleasant for everyone, but active fear is a different matter. I am certainly capable of justifying this fear in practical terms, but I am not convinced that these justifications end up being legitimate. Conflict is both fundamentally inevitable in some situations and not intrinsically immoral or problematic. The key is how we resolve conflict, which I suppose explains my comfort with technical conflict: I have a clear script for resolving it.

As I have already mentioned though, I tend to avoid more interpersonal conflict, resulting in a situation where I’m not as good at resolving it simply because it’s a skill I don’t practice. The caveat to this is that I believe I am an excellent mediator, since my general likeability and rationalist outlook make me very good at acting as a trusted, neutral third-party. Unfortunately for me those skills do not naturally translate to the case where I have chips in the game.

I do not believe it is fundamentally a bad thing to want to avoid conflict, but I do believe it is a bad thing to not be able to resolve conflict when it arises, and I definitely wish that I was more willing to stand up for myself and accept the resulting conflict in some situations. It is a skill I’m looking to build, but I plan to start small.

Hopefully you agree.

Conflict and Cooperation

And finally we come to the last post in our game theory subsection, itself the last section in what I originally called “practical worldbuilding”. Conflict and cooperation are in many ways two sides of the same coin: ways in which multiple people can interact. Since, this whole section has been about people making decisions, conflict and cooperation is really about how groups of people make decisions.

In many ways the concepts we’ve already covered are more than good enough to handle this case, it just gets a bit unwieldy to start working through all the details for each individual. You start running into behaviours like Keynesian Beauty Contests and things become… complicated. Theoretically we want something like Asimov’s psychohistory, but that is still sadly fictional.

Still, we can say some interesting and hopefully useful things. Conflict occurs when the apparent goal(s) of another person is/are incompatible with your goal(s). Cooperation occurs when the apparent goal(s) of another person is/are compatible with your goal(s). As we have seen however, goals are tricky things. And just like people are pretty bad at evaluating risks, we’re also pretty bad at evaluating the goals of other people, even when we’re not being actively deceived.

In even larger groups of course, you start getting into memetics and social negotiation. It’s all one big sliding scale of behavioural analysis, tied up with a bow.