RENEGOTIATING NAFTA WAS LESS ABOUT WINNING THAN NOT LOSING
A swAggering Trump got his wAy, But not As muCh As he ClAims
On the morning after, the president of the United States and the prime minister of Canada emerged to ruminate on their big deal. One was boastful and triumphant, the other subdued and relieved.
Donald Trump called it important and fair to all parties, which, to him, NAFTA was not. This new deal, he modestly suggested, is something only he could have done.
Justin Trudeau talked about the value of compromise, this country’s mantra, and declared “a good day for Canada.” Good or bad, this was another day that he had shielded us — through this renamed, imperfect agreement — from the shower of threats, cries and laments of this mercurial president.
If victory for Canada is pulling your head out of the bear’s mouth with only a scratch or gash, we’ll take it. If victory is avoiding calamity, we’ll take it, too.
From the beginning, renegotiating NAFTA was less about winning than not losing. It was a defensive campaign to hold ground and make gains where we could, like protecting our auto industry and discarding the damaging Chapter 11 on investor-state dispute provisions.
It was all about tempering Trump. This started with the careful charm offensive when Trudeau visited the White House in 2017, courting both the president and Ivanka Trump, who seemed to matter then but has since become a lawn ornament.
Our campaign enlisted Brian Mulroney, who was strategic and shrewd. While Stephen Harper sneered and Andrew Scheer shuffled, Mulroney went to Washington, made our case to Congress and lobbied powerful friends.
Trudeau imposed a rigid discipline across the government. No unflattering statements or flippant tweets about Trump. That held, largely, until the cosmopolitan Chrystia Freeland said something which annoyed Trump. He should have been happy we didn’t send him Stéphane Dion.
To a senior adviser in Ottawa, the talks were not as fitful or erratic as they appeared. They had a linear quality of advances and reversals that these things often do. And while Robert Lighthizer, the lead American negotiator, was called loud, rude and dismissive, he was also skilled and reliable.
Besides, yelling at the other side isn’t unusual. Simon Reisman, the deputy minister who negotiated the CanadaU.S. Free Trade Agreement, was famously volcanic.
In managing the talks, then, our government was agile and restrained. That was not enough to stop Trump from attacking Trudeau personally after the G-7 meeting in June — which stunned him and his associates — and things between the two deteriorated.
Amid insult, Trudeau remained silent. On Monday, Trump was cordial in referring to Trudeau (“He loves the people of Canada,” Trump observed) but distant.
Trudeau recognizes that Canada starts from a position of economic weakness with the United States, which buys three-quarters of our exports. It isn’t their tanks that scare us but their tariffs.
Trump imposed tariffs on steel and threatened more on autos. We learned quickly that he is not George H.W. Bush or Bill Clinton; this president has no appreciation of our shared past. Recall the World Wars, the Persian Gulf, Kosovo, Afghanistan or other conflicts, as we may, but that fades amid America First.
Canada? A special relationship? What’s that?
At the end of the day, it is immaterial if Trudeau and Trump have come to dislike each other. As Trudeau noted on Monday, the partnership is greater than its leaders.
Laura Dawson, who ably runs the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, fears that something has broken, perhaps irreparably, in the relationship. After this bruising chapter, she wonders if Canadians will ever feel the same about Americans as we did on Sept. 11, 2001. Maybe not.
In the past, we fell out over Vietnam, Iraq and ballistic missile defence. Life went on. Trade grew.
A swaggering Trump got his way this time, though not as much as he claims. He bullied us. Our government did the best any government could. It knew that its foremost responsibility, after national unity, is to preserve relations with the United States. Always.
Once again, against the odds, we have.
Andrew Cohen is a journalist, professor and author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History.