Canada's Relations with the US under Trump-Trudeau

Cover Story By Eric Walberg

The US president indicated for the first time that he is not seeking major changes to the Canada-US trade relationship, despite his vow to cancel or at least radically rewrite the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau left Washington in February 2017 after half day of meetings with President Donald Trump with the only souvenir that counted: Trump’s clear signal that Canada is not in his crosshairs on trade or border security, despite stark differences. Trump told a nationally televised news conference that he regarded America’s northern neighbour as a trusted and valued ally on trade, economic and military matters. Canadians breathed a collective sigh of relief.

The US president indicated for the first time that he is not seeking major changes to the Canada-US trade relationship, despite his vow to cancel or at least radically rewrite the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). “We’ll be doing certain things that are going to benefit both of our countries. It’s a much less severe situation than what’s taking place on the southern border.”

Trudeau, age 45, and Trump, age 70, have vastly different outlooks of the world. Trudeau is a liberal who champions free trade and has welcomed 40,000 Syrian refugees. He calls himself a feminist and his Cabinet is 50 percent women. Trump has few women in his Cabinet. He has taken a protectionist stance on trade, wants to crack down on the inflow of migrants and refugees, and has already begun to deport illegal aliens. Trump's order to temporarily halt entry into the US by people from seven predominantly Muslim nations shocked the world, and was suspended for 90 days in the courts, but still threatens.

Washington Post journalist Ishaan Tharoor (son of Shashi Tharoor, noted Indian writer and politician) has dubbed Justin Trudeau the "Anti-Trump". Trudeau and Trump have mastered "the art of branding and showmanship," but in completely different ways. "Trudeau's progressive, inclusive message could not be more different than that of Trump." A video accompanying Tharoor's piece contrasts a clip of Trudeau announcing an end to Canada's airstrikes against the so-called Islamic State soon after his election, with one of Trump vowing to "bomb the shit out of them."

Canada's PM and the US president differ most, perhaps, when it comes to treatment of Muslims. Trudeau's Liberals railed against "the politics of Islamophobia" in the election last fall, while Trump has outrageously called for a "complete shutdown" of Muslims from entering the United States.

In a town hall meeting sponsored by Maclean's magazine in December 2015, Trudeau was careful not to mention US presidential contenders, but clearly was no fan of Trump. "I stand firmly against the politics of division, the politics of fear, the politics of intolerance or hateful rhetoric." Trudeau also warned against rewarding those who try to spin Muslims into scapegoats for political points."If we allow politicians to succeed by scaring people, we don't actually end up any safer. Fear doesn't make us safer, it makes us weaker. We need to remain focused on keeping our communities safe and united instead of trying to build walls and scapegoating communities." Muslims,” he said “are the greatest victims of terrorist acts around the world. Painting ISIS and others with a broad brush that extends to all Muslims is not just ignorant, it is irresponsible."

Trudeau also spoke about ways of dealing with the international community that look back to the 'soft power' of earlier Liberal regimes, not the harsh rhetoric of the last Conservative government. This is something that Trump has abandoned, despite his vow not to undertake more foreign wars. He has told his Cabinet to cut billions from their budgets, while planning to increase military spending sharply. This is 'big stick' diplomacy, reminiscent of George Bush and Ronald Reagan. How it will play out internationally is impossible to predict.

Trump has told NATO members that they should pay for US troops stationed in Europe and increase their military spending in line with the US. Trump has called on NATO allies--including Canada--to spend at least 2 percent of their economic output on the military. According to the World Bank, Canada spent 2 percent of its GDP on the military in 1988, and 1 percent in 2015, in comparison to 5.6 and 3.3 percent by the US in 1988 and 2015 respectively.

NAFTA, Pipelines, Immigrants, Environment

NAFTA, which is almost two decades old, has reshaped North American and Mexican economies. Relations with the US are crucial as more than 75 percent of Canada's exports go to the US, while 18 percent of US exports go to Canada. Trade between the countries is roughly in balance, according to Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, with Canada the largest buyer of American exports. There are fears among Canadians that they could be hurt as well, as Trump targets Mexico in a re-negotiation of NAFTA. Trump has railed against the NAFTA deal and has called it the worst in US history.

“Nine million US jobs depend directly on US exports to Canada,” said Freeland when she was international trade minister. While Mexico and Canada increased their trade with the US under NAFTA, the US goods trade deficit with Canada and Mexico has grown from $9.1 billion in 1993 to $76.2 billion in 2015. NAFTA’s effect on US jobs is disputed, despite Freeland's soothing words.

But renegotiating this complex treaty would be very difficult, no one-way street. Canada and Mexico are preparing their own list of demands that could require difficult US concessions. If Trump just tears it up, Mexico would suffer much more than Canada, as Canada and the US would automatically revert to the pre-existing free-trade agreement (FTA) between the two countries.

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto said that he would be willing to discuss NAFTA with Trump to “modernize” the treaty, but not renegotiate existing provisions. He wants to add environmental, labour and other provisions that weren’t contemplated when NAFTA was being negotiated in the early 1990s. Trudeau will insist that "any renegotiation bring an end to a decades-old dispute over Canadian exports of softwood lumber," said David MacNaughton, Canada’s ambassador to the United States.

Both Mexico and Canada would likely demand greater access to competing for US public sector procurements, now largely protected by “Buy America” laws. A major Trump administration infrastructure spending program would make this a more enticing target.

Canadian workers will be glad to see the back of NAFTA, as they lost heavily to the US and Mexico. It is Mexico that faces serious problems if NAFTA is cancelled. In addition, there is the demand that it erect--and pay for--a 2,000 mile long "Great Wall of Mexico" separating the two countries, and the prospect of millions of illegal workers in the US being deported to Mexico, whether or not they are Mexicans.

Trump lost no time in overturning Obama's cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline, and scuttling the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which can’t go ahead without the US. No decision on pulling out of TPP becomes final until February 2018, so there is a breathing space. Perhaps the other 11 members, including Canada, will agree to renegotiate to bring Trump onside, but it's unlikely.

Immigration and Muslims will continue to divide the US and Canada. If the US shuts down immigration of Muslims, that will mean thousands more lining up to come to Canada. The closest the leaders came to agreement there was that security and immigration “need to work very well together,” according to Trudeau, that they have "a very similar goal, which is to create free, open societies that keep our citizens safe."

Trudeau has been loudly boasting about his credentials as an environmental leader, signing the Paris agreement of 2015 which Trump threatens to cancel. But Trudeau and Trump are both on the same page regarding oil and gas pipelines, and Trudeau is most likely smiling as he burnishes his comparatively pro-environment politics.

Canadians were disappointed at his decision to push ahead with the toxic oil tarsands, and quickly give the green light to the Kinder-Morgan pipeline to export crude oil across the Rocky Mountains through native lands, with other pipelines in the works. Trump's open disdain for environmentally friendly policies makes the wishy-washy Trudeau look good in comparison.

As Trump plans to increase coal production, Canada is speeding up the transition from traditional coal power to clean energy by 2030. Trudeau also restored funding for environmental research, cancelled under his predecessor Stephen Harper, even as Trump guts such environmental research and tries to shut down the Environmental Protection Agency, founded by Nixon in 1970.

Trump will face opposition not only internationally, but domestically, some of it from his own industrialists, who embraced cleaner technology under Obama, with an eye on exporting. Local and regional governments have also been taking their own action on climate, as happened in Canadian provinces adopting carbon taxes and cap-and-trade systems despite Harper's stalling. Besides, costs of alternative energy are falling, and coal is not so cheap anymore.

Finding Common Cause on Women

A White House official and a senior Canadian government official said that the two countries plan to launch a new task force called the United States Canada Council for the Advancement of Women Business Leaders-Female Entrepreneurs led by Ivanka Trump. Trudeau's close cooperation with Trump and the 'first daughter' is one of the few things the leaders could agree on. "It's a smart thing if Canada proposed this," said Nelson Wiseman, a professor at the University of Toronto. "It takes attention off of NAFTA. It contributes to softening Trump's image."

Roland Paris, a former senior foreign policy to Trudeau, said the prime minister needs to build a relationship with Trump to ensure Canada is not shut out economically. "The overriding priority will be for Canada to maintain secure and reliable access to the US market and the supply chains that crisscross the border," Paris said.

It could also alleviate some fears that Trump will be as combative with Trudeau as he has been with the leaders of Mexico and Australia, both of whom felt betrayed by Trump on the immigration issue. Mexico faces repatriation of millions of illegal immigrants and continued bigotry and slurs about Mexicans; Australia, already welcoming thousands of immigrants each year, is left holding 1,250 refugees that Obama promised to take. Trump told Australian PM it was a "dumb deal".

No Canadian Voices Cheering Trump

What about Canada's Conservatives? After the defeat of Canada's Trump equivalent, Stephen Harper, in 2015, there is no clear Conservative voice, with some leadership contenders aping Trump's right wing, anti-immigrant agenda, but interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose denouncing Trump's politics. Ambrose told Canadian Press before Trump's upset victory in November 2016, that Trump's positions went well beyond right-wing and were completely "off the spectrum."…"That's not a voice that we welcome in our party."

This is ironic, as Harper's last feint in the 2015 election campaign was to support anti-Muslim measures and eerily mimicked Trump, who was already talking about banning Muslim immigrants. Canada's Conservatives were punished for their xenophobia; even as Trump was whipping it up and going on to win his election based on it. The shadow of 9/11 still hangs over the US, while other countries have moved on, making it difficult for Canadians, chastened by a decade of Harper, to understand the US mentality that would elect a Trump.

The current situation recalls the relations that Justin's father Pierre and his successor Jean Chretien had with thorny American presidents of yesteryear, Johnson, Nixon and George Bush. Relations reached ever new low points over Vietnam and Iraq. Relations with Canada's Conservatives, in power from 2006 to 2015, became strained under Obama as well. Now, Trudeau junior is performing a new balancing act, faced with a right wing firebrand in the White House who is presiding over the failed military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq begun by George Bush. They are no more popular than Vietnam in either the US or Canada, and Trump is now contemplating invading Syria and threatening Iran.

It is hard to imagine that relations between the US and Canada will be tranquil. Trudeau's sunny visit to Washington may be his last for a while. Canada's modest size limits its 'soft power' influence on the US, so 'no news is good news' will continue as the mantra to guide Canada's relations with the US under Trump-Trudeau.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.