Canada’s most important bilateral relationship is, inarguably, with the United States—a dynamic at once simplified and complicated by proximity. Since January, 2017, it has been further complicated by the presidency of a man whose interests do not reconcile with conventional U.S. foreign policy and whose behaviour boggles strategic diplomacy. Veteran diplomat Colin Robertson writes that the key is to focus on three major objectives.
America First. Buy American. Hire American. Nativist, protectionist, and unilateralist, Donald Trump is unlike any president in the history of the United States. “The one that matters is me,” he tells Fox News. “I’m the only one that matters, because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be.”
President Trump’s cavalier treatment of treaties, alliances, trade pacts, and the multilateral architecture has been beyond merely disruptive. Sweeping aside the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the European trade deal, the Paris climate agreement, withdrawing from UNESCO and the Global Pact on Migration, and stymying dispute settlement at the World Trade Organization, all represent a radical departure from traditional U.S. policy. Instead of strengthening the rules-based global order, the Trump administration appears set on its dismemberment.
The global operating system is in a state of shock. That which his Democrat and Republican predecessors prized and carefully sustained matters little, if at all, to Donald Trump.
The current disequilibrium affects Canada, more than most other nations because of our geographic propinquity and our profound links to the United States.
For Canada, it means a U.S. strategy with three objectives:
1. Keeping the military alliance intact
The U.S. still possesses by far the most powerful global military machine in all domains—land, sea, air, space and cyber. We ride first-class on a third-class fare and contribution. The Trudeau government’s new defence policy will increase Canadian spending and improve procurement of new kit—fighter jets and warships. We have visibly increased our NATO contribution through leadership of a brigade in Latvia and new commitments to air and sea support. But, for our own protection, we should consider fully integrating ballistic missile defence into NORAD.
Creating a security perimeter that tracks the people and goods entering North America through the Smart Border Accord was essential to winning US confidence to relieving the thickened border after 9-11. Pre-clearance is a vital element and the Canadian parliament has now joined Congress in the implementing legislation that will enable Canadians traveling by rail, sea and through Toronto’s Billy Bishop and Quebec’s Jean Lesage airports to enjoy expedited passage. Now Canada needs to follow through on its commitment to enable the Canada-US entry-exit initiative.
2. Keeping our preferred trade and investment access to the American market
America is still the biggest and most innovative market in the world but we still have some work to do to help ourselves. U.S. tax reform and a NAFTA-less trade regime would change our global competitiveness and force us to re-examine Canadian tax policy.
Energy used to be our trump card but the U.S. perception of growing energy self-sufficiency and independence, fueled by President Trump, even if untrue (they still need our energy) means our negotiating hand is weakened. This should mean putting priority on getting our resources to tidewater. Only when we can access world markets will we get world prices and diversify our market. When you only have one market, it’s the buyer that sets the price. Governments, Conservative and Liberal, can’t seem to build pipelines to our coasts. It means we are a captive supplier to the USA and they know it.
NAFTA is a test case for the global economy. For the first time, a major developed economy is trying to renegotiate a trade agreement by increasing trade barriers in order to balance its trade. It raises fundamental questions. Will this lead to a new consensus on trade agreements or a collapse of the negotiations? Should it be trade agreements or should it be domestic tax and redistribution policy that delivers (or decides) social policy?
The Trudeau government is onto something with its progressive trade agenda. There is discontent that the benefits of growth and trade are not equally shared and a growing perception that benefits accumulate with the 1 percent leaving the 99 percent in the cold.
The new populism has fueled not just Donald Trump but Brexit and right-wing movements like the Front National, Alternative für Deutschland and governments in Eastern Europe. Putting emphasis on environment and labour standards, respect for gender and Indigenous rights, and the right of states to legislate in the interest of health and safety defines the progressive trade agenda. It’s a good thing but its application needs to be pragmatic and flexible. Nor should the perfect be the enemy of the good. We need to conclude negotiations on the TPP, implement the CETA with Europe and start trade talks with China. The only way for a middle power like Canada to influence the political, social and economic evolution in China, and to further our interests in the Pacific, is to be at the table— not to stand back. There is a risk that opportunities will slip away that may not come around again for some time. It was fifty years ago that Pierre Trudeau sought counterweights to the U.S. through closer links with Japan and Europe that we now have the potential to fully realize.
3. Balancing a working relationship with the Trump Administration with independence of action on the international stage
There is considerable risk of rancour over the growing policy differences with the Trump administration on climate, migration and the utility of multilateralism. Pushing back on Trump policies that affect Canada, including standing up for Canadians born in designated Muslim nations who encounter difficulties entering the U.S. will require skill but it needs to be done. The temptation for the gratuitous that will gain short-term popular acclaim needs to be balanced against our strategic goals. We need to remember and apply one of Brian Mulroney’s principles of Canada-U.S. relations: that we can disagree without being disagreeable.
Canada, in league with other middle and like-minded pow-ers who value representative government, human rights, and freer trade, needs to again step up and reassert our interests in sustaining and preserving the rules-based liberal international system.
In the practical sense, this means working in tandem with our European and Pacific partners. It means finding niches—like providing a venue for talks on North Korea, or leading in rethinking peace operations as we demonstrated through the Vancouver Principles on the prevention of the recruitment and use of child soldiers. We should resurrect and host the Nuclear Security Summits initiated by President Barack Obama.
As the Parliamentary Centre celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2018, we should properly fund it and use it to promote our democratic values abroad.
Resourcing also applies to the Global Affairs department that is now responsible for foreign policy, trade and development. The Trudeau government has been lavish in its praise for the foreign service but much less forthcoming in providing our diplomats with a budget that can enable them meet the high expectations that the government has set for itself.
To meet the Trump challenge, the Trudeau government remade the cabinet and instituted tactical initiatives, putting the U.S. relationship at the top of its agenda.
The most important was sustained and targeted outreach, involving all parties and all levels of government, to remind Americans that we are their biggest export market, a reliable ally and a secure source of energy.
During the first six months of the Trump administration, Canadian cabinet members made 160 trips: meeting 14 cabinet members, almost 200 lawmakers and more than 40 state governors and lieutenant governors.
Parsed down to the state and district level are fact sheets detailing the jobs created by Canadian trade and investment. Should Trump rescind NAFTA, tactics will change: the fact sheets will detail the costs of Canadian tariffs to American producers and consumers. Heinz ketchup, for example, would face an 8 per cent tariff that would make its British counterparts from Tesco and Salisbury the better buy. This tactic was applied, in tandem with Mexico, during the country-of-origin labelling dispute. It worked. It’s not the desired approach because consumers are the big losers, but it is what we would have to do.
Cultural diplomacy is a key part of the outreach strategy. An effective example is Justin Trudeau’s invitation to Ivanka Trump and UN ambassadors to the Broadway hit Come from Away that celebrates the welcome Gander extended to Americans stranded there on 9-11. The ticket investment—$29,391—was worth every penny in earned media and popular feedback. As the New York Times wrote: “We are now in a moment in which millions of immigrants are homeless and denied entry to increasingly xenophobic nations, including the United States. A tale of an insular populace that doesn’t think twice before opening its arms to an international throng of strangers automatically acquires a near-utopian nimbus.”
Alistair Cooke, the renowned British journalist whose Letter from America was broadcast weekly for over half a century, observed that the U.S. is “a land of the most persistent idealism and the blandest cynicism—the race is on between its decadence and its vitality.”
In Donald Trump the pendulum has swung to its decadent, cynical extreme. Bret Stephens, formerly of the Wall Street Journal and now a New York Times columnist, recently observed that Trump “meets most of the criteria for narcissistic personality disorder. And the frequently unhinged and spasmodic tweets suggest a guy who isn’t in control of himself.”
Public opinion surveys suggest that Americans disapprove of Donald Trump. The U.S. global image has declined steeply because of him. But, he retains the support of his base, although a recent Pew poll shows that support has slipped to near 30
Is President Trump in decline? The GOP could lose its congressional majorities in 2018. The Mueller investigation could result in his resignation or impeachment. But this is wishful thinking. We underestimate Donald Trump at our peril. The U.S. economy is booming, unemployment is low and, in the short term, tax reform promises to put more dollars in voters’ pockets. Mr. Trump will claim he has kept his promises.
Management of the relationship with the U.S. has become much more difficult with Donald Trump but manage Mr. Trump we must.
Canada’s international relationships will always be conditioned by our relationship with the United States. We cannot change our geography, nor would we want to. The U.S. is not only our most important ally and trading partner, but when we leverage personal relations and our role as bridge or linchpin, we also significantly enhance our diplomatic weight.
It was the U.S. that muscled us into the G7, in no small part because successive treasury secretaries, George Shultz and then Bill Simon, knew that then Finance Minister John Turner and External Affairs Minister Allan MacEachen were reliable allies and brought value to the table.
Canada gains when we play the role of explainer or interpreter of the U.S. to the rest of the world, especially during Republican administrations, as was the case during the years of Brian Mulroney, Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush, from 1984-93.
Canada needs to pursue a U.S. strategy that protects our military alliance and mitigates damage to the commercial relationship. Through independent policies on climate, migration and trade, and constructive internationalism, we must work to sustain the rules-based order that has given Canada its middle power place and standing.