Playing for time and sticking to the free trade guns is what Canada appears to be doing.
That’s a good thing, say two prominent voices on Canada-United States trade, because surviving the Donald J. Trump administration’s protectionist tendencies will take fortitude and commitment to preserve a trading relationship of incredible benefit to Canada.
“On this file, I think Canada has been handling things exactly correctly,” said David Frum, the prominent journalist and former Republican White House aide, in an address opening CropConnect in Winnipeg Feb. 14.
“Canada needs to play for time, avoid sudden moves, avoid being provoked.”
Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney closed the sprawling farm show Feb. 15, urging Canadian farmers to appreciate what the North American Free Trade Agreement does for them and to let other Canadians know how important Canada-U.S. trade is to them.
While Trump’s threats are serious, Mulroney seemed to feel they could be faced down with resolution and a diplomatic approach.
“We have reason to be concerned, but not alarmed,” said Mulroney.
While Mulroney is said to have a friendly relationship with Trump, who he knows socially, Mulroney strongly criticized the Trump administration’s “mistaken notion” that trade has hurt the U.S. economy, and that old-style manufacturing jobs could be brought back by erecting trade barriers.
He described this approach as “good campaign rhetoric, but bad economics.”
Frum said much of Trump’s attitude is honestly felt, and is not just a belligerent negotiating style. Trump doesn’t believe agreements can be win-win, or win-win-win in the case of NAFTA, Frum said.
“He lives in the world in which you are dominating or being dominated. You’re on top or underneath,” said Frum.
That’s not likely to change. But Frum said Trump’s attacks on trade are blunted by dozens of U.S. state governors, who realize that Canada is their top trading partner and vital to many local industries, and by the U.S. Senate, which is heavily weighted toward representatives of these trading states.
As well, he said Trump’s threats to tear up deals might not be brought to fruition. Trump “really hates” the U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement, but he hasn’t torn it up. He killed U.S. involvement in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but that was not law yet.
Frum is more worried about the radicalizing influence of Trump in two other areas.
He fears Trump’s disruptive nature could spur the Democratic Party to rush into populist politics like that seen now in the British Labour Party with Jeremy Corbyn. That could set up an oscillation between extreme left and extreme right that could destabilize the U.S. and institutionalize protectionism.
He also fears that Trump’s belligerence will push Mexico’s populist left-wing party to power in this year’s presidential election, something that could see the Mexicans kill NAFTA before Trump has a chance to.
“NAFTA could end up being blown up by the Mexicans,” Frum said.
Mulroney meanwhile, clearly enjoyed his time talking to CropConnect, where hundreds of farmers benefitting from free trade gave him warm applause and no tough questions.
Charlie Mayer, the former Manitoba MP and federal agriculture minister who broke oats out from the Canadian Wheat Board’s control, sat nearby.
Mulroney waxed on about how much free-flowing trade had helped the agriculture sector, despite a barrage of claims in the 1988 election that it would make Canada a crippled dependence of the U.S.
“We’re doing a trillion dollars a year of business. A trillion,” he marvelled in a later meeting with journalists.