Look be­yond Trump’s huff­ing and puff­ing

U.S. pres­i­dent’s rhetoric isn’t re­flected in mod­est NAFTA ob­jec­tives

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - TIM HARPER Tim Harper writes on na­tional af­fairs for Torstar news­pa­pers. tjharper77@gmail.com, Twit­ter: @nut­graf1

I don’t know how most of our U.S. neigh­bours cel­e­brated Made in Amer­ica Day, but Don­ald Trump sure knew how to party.

He sat with boy­ish glee in a big red fire truck. He tried on a cow­boy hat. He swung a base­ball bat.

Then he launched into full blus­ter and bravado when it came to trade.

“No longer are we go­ing to al­low other coun­tries to break the rules, steal our jobs and drain our wealth,” Trump said. “And it has been drained. It has been drained.”

He claimed that mil­lions of Amer­i­can jobs have been lost to un­fair trade, but he told Amer­i­can man­u­fac­tur­ers that when they see what he is go­ing to do about it over the next six months, they are go­ing to be so happy.

And then his trade rep­re­sen­ta­tive, Robert Lighthizer, re­leased his 18-page list of pri­or­i­ties for com­ing NAFTA ne­go­ti­a­tions, and there was none of that light­ning and thun­der. Re­ac­tion from Ot­tawa and Cana­dian trade ex­perts was a po­lite smile and a readi­ness to get to the ta­ble.

Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau had al­ready laid out Ot­tawa’s low-key re­solve in his pre-NAFTA speech to U.S. gov­er­nors in Rhode Is­land: “While you, my Amer­i­can friends, may be an ele­phant, Canada is no mouse. More like a moose. Strong and peace­able, but still mas­sively out­weighed. So we have to work harder to make our points.”

When for­mal NAFTA talks be­gin next month, Cana­di­ans, Amer­i­cans and Mex­i­cans will largely tune out un­til there is drama. And, make no mis­take, any ne­go­ti­a­tions in­volv­ing Trump will in­evitably in­clude drama.

But such the­atre is ex­pected. It is the nat­u­ral out­growth of pol­i­tics, like a strike or lock­out threat dur­ing labour ne­go­ti­a­tions or Si­mon Reis­man, Canada’s chief ne­go­tia­tor, an­grily stomp­ing out of the orig­i­nal CanadaU.S. free trade talks to suc­cess­fully move them for­ward.

But there is noth­ing in the U.S. out­line that is go­ing to some­how re­store those “mil­lions” of jobs Trump claims the U.S. has lost due to trade deals, noth­ing that would mag­i­cally re­verse the flow of Amer­i­can wealth he claims is be­ing drained.

This tough talk on trade is for Trump’s base. Cana­dian ne­go­tia­tors will know he will have to trum­pet some win in the new deal, and they will gra­ciously clear his pa­rade route as Ot­tawa holds firm on con­tentious points.

Should Cana­di­ans be wary of a U.S. bid to elim­i­nate a dis­pute res­o­lu­tion mech­a­nism in this deal?

Per­haps, but any­one who has ne­go­ti­ated a labour deal would be fa­mil­iar with a com­pany de­mand to elim­i­nate some­thing a union would never re­lin­quish, hop­ing it will agree to other trade-offs to pro­tect a bot­tom line. Nei­ther Canada nor Mex­ico will give up a dis­pute res­o­lu­tion mech­a­nism of some type.

Trudeau, his cab­i­net and many of the pro­vin­cial pre­miers have played this pre-ne­go­ti­a­tion pe­riod per­fectly, go­ing di­rectly to gov­er­nors, the Congress and state leg­is­la­tures, while re­spect­ing Trump’s team.

They have re­lent­lessly re­minded their Amer­i­can coun­ter­parts that nine mil­lion U.S. work­ers are de­pen­dent on trade for their liveli­hoods, that two-thirds of U.S. states list Canada as their largest ex­port mar­ket.

And as Trudeau said last Fri­day, pref­er­en­tial ac­cess in gov­ern­ment pro­cure­ment, an­other U.S. pro­posal re­leased Mon­day, hurts work­ing class fam­i­lies and can be­gin a race to the bot­tom in a fu­tile game of tit-for-tat.

Lob­by­ing sub­na­tional govern­ments is not a new strat­egy, yet it re­ceives more at­ten­tion this time be­cause of the pres­ence of Trump.

But, al­though Trudeau has been at great pains to re­ject any claim that the Cana­dian “strat­egy” is to go around Trump, the trade agenda will be driven by the U.S. Congress, not the pres­i­dent.

It is also a Congress which can read poll num­bers — one this week showed Trump with a 55-per-cent dis­ap­proval rat­ing — with the U.S. mid-terms just over the next hill.

As Carlo Dade, di­rec­tor of the Trade and In­vest­ment Cen­tre at the Canada West Foun­da­tion, put it: “Congress has a very ac­tive role here. Trump can’t run and hide on this. He can try his ‘I’m Don­ald Trump, this is what I ne­go­ti­ated and you’re go­ing to sign this.’ But it won’t work be­cause this Congress does not trust this pres­i­dent on for­eign pol­icy.”

So the ques­tion of trade tweak or tear­down has been an­swered. This trends strongly to tweak.

Trump may huff and he may puff, but in this case no one is blow­ing down the Cana­dian house. Politi­cians here who re­fused to rise to the pres­i­den­tial bait must re­main vig­i­lant, but they have al­ready scored a par­tial vic­tory.


With Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence look­ing on, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump takes a seat in a fire truck from Pierce Man­u­fac­tur­ing dur­ing a Made In Amer­ica prod­uct show­case event at the White House this week.

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