In the wake of the recent G7 Summit in Charlevoix, Canadians have been perplexed by the rampage of criticism from U.S. President Donald J. Trump directed at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government.
It makes listening to Vivienne Segal’s Broadway hit “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” a new and instructive way to understand the present bewilderment of the Canadian body politic. Its lyrics reflect the intrepid frustrations of a jilted lover. Since 1940, this hit has been sung by Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and even Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett in a duo. It gives new meaning to the Canada-U.S. trade tiff.
Up until now, the Canadian strategy has been based on a minimal understanding of the American president and his behavior. His campaign promises to rewrite NAFTA or tear it up and pursue a protectionist economic policy were clear enough in the run-up to the presidential election.
By and large, Canadians were not listening and preferred to hope for a Hilary Clinton victory in 2015. Canadians underestimated the vile and malicious nature of the campaign against Clinton and how much so many Americans held her and her husband in contempt.
Canadian leaders continued to misread the tea leaves by hoping against hope that Canada could remain off the Trump radar once he became president. Much of his venom had been directed against Mexico and illegal immigration. Everyone seemed preoccupied with the southern wall and who was going to pay for it.
Misreading Trump’s Objective
Yet, little by little, Canada came to be one of the prime targets of President Trump. Early NAFTA negotiations did not go well, and the softwood lumber dispute reared its ugly head again in 2017 when U.S. duties were again imposed.
On NAFTA, the American strategy has always been based on creating economic uncertainty in Canada and Mexico by various means: no NAFTA agreement on the sunset clause, autos, diary, separate deals with Mexico and Canada and new Trump corporate tax reductions inducing companies and investment to gravitate to the U.S. In this regard, Canadian authorities completely misread the Trump objective. For the U.S., NAFTA is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
The Trump team understands that the success of the America First policy passes through the creation of economic uncertainty in the smaller more dependent trade partners, even if it means some temporary suffering to the domestic economy.
If Canada is forced to cave on the sunset clause, NAFTA would have to be renegotiated every five years, and Trump will have achieved his goal. Everyone including the Trump administration knows that the national security argument makes no sense in justifying the steel and aluminium tariffs announced in May 2018. The bald-faced lie was a means to an end and exposing this fallacy gets the Canadians nowhere. It simply plays to a Canadian domestic constituency rather than achieving any results. The real problem is the Trump administration, which can withstand easily foreign complaints about invoking national security to justify protecting American jobs.
Changes in the White House were warning signs that the trade war would heat up as free traders like ex-Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson were shown the door while the shrewd right-wing John R. Bolton was brought in. Bolton saw first-hand when he was U.S. Ambassador at the United Nations between 2005 and 2006 how Canada’s foreign policy differed from that of the U.S. Moreover, the “socialist manifesto” comment by Trump after he left Charlevoix bears the Bolton stamp.
Meanwhile, the policy of the Trudeau liberal government in Ottawa, rooted in the Anglo-Canadian unquenchable thirst for political rectitude and 19th-century versions of “fair play,” has ignored the threats, ad hominem attacks and machinations while continuing to lobby friends in the U.S. Senate and Congress.
The Canadian Embassy in Washington became a focal point for the lobby effort, and Canadian premiers and experts were brought in to illustrate to American deciders and officials how much the Canadian economy is responsible for creating U.S. jobs and prosperity.
Not once did anyone think about the question that if the entire Republican Party was unable to prevent the Trump takeover, how would a dependent economic middle power with no natural U.S. constituency fare any better?
Despite all the hand-wringing and wagging of heads south of the border, here we are more than one year into the Trump era with a result about as bad as it could get. It is hard to see how the “take it on the chin policy” has procured any victories at all. The worst outcome is the present one despite all of the savvy economic double talk and Canadian goodwill. Meanwhile, the economic uncertainty continues, and Canadian industry and workers suffer.
Canada has tariffs. The U.S. has tariffs. The European Union has tariffs. And they include agricultural tariffs across the board so let’s stop denying this fact.
Trump has threatened several times to rip up NAFTA. If the creation of economic uncertainty in Canada is the goal, as I believe, then his job has been effective. The worst fear of Canadians, is no NAFTA as if there was no thriving Canadian economy before NAFTA.
What would happen if Canada threatened to pull out of the NAFTA negotiations? Canadians would cringe at such a notion. It would, however, come as a surprise to the American side. After all, Canadian policy to renew NAFTA at any cost simply buttresses Trump’s argument to the American people that NAFTA serves the purposes of foreigners. As the Trudeau government proudly portrays itself as holier than thou, Trump cashes this at his bank for re-election. Unwittingly, the Canadians and their government are supporting the Trump narrative and sinking their own ship. So much for Anglo-Canadian reticence. This is the fatal weakness of the present Canadian strategy.
By avoiding risk-taking and playing it safe, the Trudeau liberals are playing a losing game against Trump. Lest we forget that the Trudeau government posturing plays to a domestic audience where all three national political parties support the PM. To believe that somehow American friends in the legislative branch will come to the rescue is ill-fated and guilty of lazy thinking.
Instead, bravado, risk-taking and dynamic leadership are required. As an introductory strategy, Canada should a) threaten to rip up NAFTA before Trump and b) write a letter to the E.U. requesting membership.
Otherwise, Canadians will be condemned to play the role of the jilted lover of the song “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.”