Can Trump pull USA from NAFTA

Can Donald Trump pull the U.S. out of NAFTA all on his own?

Some lawyers say withdrawal without congressional approval would be unconstitutional, but the politics of the play might be another matter

CHARLESTON, WV - MAY 05: United States Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump models a hard hat in support of the miners during his rally at the Charleston Civic Center on May 5, 2016 in Charleston, West Virginia. Trump became the Republican presumptive nominee following his landslide win in indiana on Tuesday.(Photo by Mark Lyons/Getty Images)

Listening to President Donald Trump, or reading his Twitter musings, sure leaves the impression he claims unfettered power to yank the United States clear of the North American Free Trade Agreement whenever he feels like it. “I think we’ll end up probably terminating NAFTA at some point, okay?” Trump said in a rambling late-summer speech in Phoenix. He followed up with this classic Trumpian Tweet: “We are in the NAFTA (worst trade deal ever made) renegotiation process with Mexico & Canada. Both being very difficult, may have to terminate?”

A superficial reading of NAFTA lends some support to the notion that Trump might have the power to act on his bluster. The deal among Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, which came into force in 1994, does include Article 2205, which lets any of the three countries back out on six-months notice. And, since U.S. presidents have broad power over foreign affairs, that might seem to be Trump’s clause to trigger. Indeed, some trade experts read it that way—but others see it differently.

READ MORE: NAFTA: A brief historyFor instance, Riyaz Dattu, of the law firm Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt in Toronto, says Trump’s problem is that while presidents negotiate trade deals, Congress passes the laws to make them a reality in the U.S. “President Trump would have to get Congress to repeal the [NAFTA] provisions that were written into U.S. law,” Dattu says. He concedes, though, that the potential clash over presidential and congressional clout when it comes to quitting a trade deal is “an area that has not been tested.” Trade and constitutional lawyers on both sides of the border agree that if Trump tried to act unilaterally, a court battle would likely ensue, perhaps ending up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

That assumes, however, sufficient political will among Trump’s foes to fight him over NAFTA. Colin Robertson, a former diplomat with long experience in the U.S., who has analyzed the new NAFTA talks in depth for the Ottawa-based Canadian Global Affairs Institute, predicts Trump would carry the day. “In a practical sense, if he says, ‘I’m pulling the plug,’ I don’t think there will be enough pressure in Congress to question his authority,” he says.

RELATED: NAFTA: What each country wants out of a new deal

Still, Robertson says potent U.S. domestic forces have already pulled Trump back from the brink once when he was close to trying to exit the agreement on his own say-so alone. When his administration was approaching its 100th day in power last April, rumours spread that he was contemplating a hasty NAFTA withdrawal. The U.S. farm lobby weighed in with the White House against that precipitous move, Robertson says, and succeeded. NAFTA supporters hope that if Trump again came close to abrogating, domestic forces would rally once more rally to persuade him to retreat.

If not, the question of Trump’s unilateral power to turn his anti-NAFTA rhetoric into reality will stop being an intriguing debating point for lawyers, and turn into a matter of massive real-world implications for a continental economy.

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NAFTA and the Next Election

The next big federal election agenda item has been set: Trump and trade

By the time Canadians next go to the polls, all the players will be lined up to fight over the biggest trade agreement in a generation

US President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hold a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, February 13, 2017. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Here we go again. Another federal election that will hinge on free trade.

This is not so much a prediction as it is a simple matter of following the timelines. By 2019, the next federal election, the NAFTA re-negotiations will either be in the dramatic end game or the very contentious ratification phase. The Liberal government will be consumed by the deal, as it already is today. The Conservatives and the NDP will both have new leaders desperate to define themselves by the biggest economic deal of a  generation. What to protect and what to give up? Unions will want a new deal on car manufacturing and will try to stick it to Mexico. Dairy farmers in Quebec will be fighting for supply management. You will hear the phrase “country of label origins” so often it will sound like the name of a band. Softwood lumber, beef, pharmaceuticals—oh, the lawyers are already priapic at the possibilities. We’ll even have the soundtrack of Brian Mulroney singing “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” to Donald Trump. Get ready to negotiate like it’s 1988.

“At the earliest I think the renegotiation—with or without Mexico—will take at least a year, probably 19 months,” says Colin Robertson, the vice president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a former diplomat who implemented NAFTA back in 1993. “After that we have to go for ratification, which adds on another year plus. My guess is that NAFTA, or whatever we call it, doesn’t get wrapped up until spring or summer 2019, meaning it will be front and centre in our October 2019 election.”

READ MORE: A Trump trade war with Mexico would be a disaster for both sides

But wait. Isn’t this all supposed to unfold a lot quicker than that? Didn’t Donald Trump say this was just a matter of a few “tweaks”? How long could that take? Isn’t Trump all chummy with Justin Trudeau over their Women’s Business Council?

If you believe that then you might as well believe your microwave is spying on you. Just listen to the Trump people who are in charge of the NAFTA renegotiation. They are not predicting a trade war with us; they believe they are already in one. We just refuse to believe it.

“We’ve been in a trade war for decades,” new U.S. commerce secretary Wilbur Ross told Bloomberg News recently, as he clarified why the U.S. is launching a radical series of trade negotiations that will include a head-on collision with China and ripping up NAFTA. Comparing trade negotiations to war is standard fare for the Trump administration, where hyperbolic, confrontational rhetoric is the vernacular. Turns out the art of the deal is really a euphemism for an eye-gouging brawl.

Ross and Trump are obsessed with the dangers of trade deficits. It is their white whale and they’re likely just as mythical. The fact is, most economists agree that trade deficits are not necessarily bad for the U.S. economy nor do they reflect some camouflaged version of a trade war, as Ross asserts. There are many reasons why the U.S. imports more than it exports, and some of those reasons actually help the economy. But billionaires like Trump and Ross don’t trifle with details. Every minor issue is elevated to its maximum threat level, so a trade imbalance becomes a trade war. That’s why when Trump casually remarked that the coming changes to NAFTA will merely be “tweaks,” he was so off brand. Trumps don’t tweak, they transform—or, at least, they say they will. Ross has now corrected the record. “It’s not going to be a shooting war,” he continued to Bloomberg, as if the bench mark for an acceptable negotiation was merely a lack of bullets. “If people know you have the big bazooka, you probably don’t have to use it.”

So there it is. Either Wilbur Ross has a bazooka in his trade pocket or he’s just really excited to negotiate with Canada. Whatever it is: by his own admission, a trade war is coming. That warning was reiterated this week during the confirmation hearing for Robert Lighthizer, the incoming trade secretary. Both Republicans and Democrats pressed him to crack down on trade with Canada, including digital piracy, counterfeit products and softwood lumber. “I’ve had a variety of issues with respect to Canada that have been raised by senators,” Lighthizer said. “There are a number of things we have to address with respect to Canada.”

None of this is a surprise to Team Trudeau. They have done the pragmatic thing and fanned out across the U.S. this week like the snowstorm Stella itself—blanketing politicians with information about the benefits of an open border and free trade with Canada. To their credit, they have not been lulled into complacency by the purring of the Trump lions. They have set up a special Trump team inside the PMO, shuffled the cabinet to get competent and connected people like Chrystia Freeland and Andrew Leslie in key spots, and taken advice from everyone who can help, from Derek Burney to Brian Mulroney. Conservatives I have spoken to have grudgingly acknowledged that the PM is doing all the right things.

The only person griping is NDP leader Tom Mulcair, who believes that unless Trudeau is out there calling Trump a fascist, he’s nothing more than a quisling. Mulcair can say stuff like this because he’s now in his Easy Rider phase, wildly gunning it down the last miles of his political highway and sticking it to the man. Go man go. He deserved better from his party and if he wants to bring back some hippie anger to the NDP, damn the consequences.

READ MORE: Why Canada—and its economy—has plenty to fear from Trump

For the Prime Minister, though, all things must be put through the political calculator, especially with Canada’s largest trading partner. We don’t get to pick the U.S. President any more than we pick our own parents, so Trudeau’s tactical charm offensive is a legitimate response. This week the Prime Minister is in New York to reinforce the close bond of Canada and the U.S. during 9/11. Last week he was in Texas at an energy conference talking about oil. Meanwhile, other ministers, MPs and premiers are hitting 11 states, from Kentucky to Wisconsin, Indiana to Florida. It’s better to jaw-jaw than war-war, as Winston Churchill liked to say.

The problem is, it might not make much difference. The next election will still be about the trade deal: What was won, what was lost, what concessions were made, what victories were gained. Look at the timeline. The President needs to gives Congress 90 days’ notification in order to kick start the renegotiation of NAFTA, but he can’t rush too much because Wilbur Ross’s team still isn’t in place. Still, for the sake of argument, let’s follow Ross’s “bazooka approach”—the fast-track option—and assume the President gives notice in the next few weeks. Then what?

Here are the blocks of time you have to bake into the process at the bare minimum. Congress needs 180 days’ warning before signing the deal, as the Globe and Mail has reported, and another 105 days for the International Trade Commission to look over the deal and put out a report. Then there is another 6o-day period for amendments. That’s already 435 days, deep into 2018—and that’s if everything goes smoothly.

No serious person thinks it will go smoothly, even if Congress tries to fast-track the timelines. Contentious issues like softwood lumber, automobiles and, wait for it, water, could blow this thing up. The free trade deal with the European Union took years and it was almost derailed by the Walloons. We don’t even know who the U.S. version of the Walloons will be, but in America, Walloons are super-sized, so expect a few hurdles. Just look back at the former trade deals with the U.S. as precedent.

“We finished negotiations of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement in October 1987 and then made some more changes in December before signature in January 1988,” says Robertson. “Then we fought an election on it. Then on NAFTA we finished negotiations in early 1993 and put it through the implementing legislation, finishing in June 1993. Then came the October election and we had to do the labour and environmental accords. Clinton only got the U.S. Congress to pass it in November 1993, a year after he was elected and signed in December.”

Talking to Robertson about trade timelines makes a mockery of the idea that there are simple tweaks out there. There aren’t. The first U.S.–Canada Free Trade Agreement took four years. When we brought in Mexico to make it NAFTA, it took another four years. The Trans Pacific Partnership, which Trump just crushed, has been 11 years in the making. People talk about the Doha Development Round, which started in 2001, as if was a mythical character in a box-office flop called Fantastic Trade Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Saul Loeb/Getty

Let’s add one more wrinkle here: Washington gridlock. Even though Republicans control the House, the Senate and the presidency, the debate over replacing Obamacare has revealed the unified government to be more like a dysfunctional family at a Christmas dinner. “Trump is no Lyndon Johnson,” says Robertson, “and while he is better than Obama at working congressional leadership, my friends tell me there are already antagonisms at the staff level between the Speaker/majority leader in the Senate and the White House.” Pass the gravy.

READ MORE: Trudeau can’t afford to just play Trump one-on-one

Not everyone thinks it will go this long. I spoke with Eddie Goldenberg, Jean Chretien’s former senior political advisor, who believes the process could wrap up faster. “The Trump Administration will do its best to finish before the midterms in the U.S., so it is unlikely that the negotiations will be continuing during the next Canadian election campaign,” he says. Maybe. But as Robertson points out, the implementation and ratification will take another year-plus. “If there is any election issue,” Goldenberg says, “it will be about the government’s record—positive or negative—with respect to the outcome of the negotiations.”

That is true and the battle lines will quickly be drawn. The NDP needs to regain the union vote as it tacks back to the left and will likely oppose much of the deal unless it is radically changed to protect Canadian jobs, something no one here has signalled. But until Jack Layton, opposing free trade was the ticket to the NDP’s best success, and that formula will no doubt be back. The Conservatives are in a full identity crisis now, and will have to figure out if they want to play tough with the U.S. and go back to the Sir John A. MacDonald days of a National Policy—essentially copying Trump’s Buy American stance with a Buy Canadian—or if they want to follow the pro-free trade Mulroney-Harper path, which is more likely but offers less differentiation from the Liberals. Either way, the free trade deal will be the target. Everyone better grab a bazooka.

Trade with the U.S. has defined many Canadian elections, from 1867 to 1911 to 1988. Might as well get ready now and pencil in 2019 as another election fought over free trade.

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Negotiating with Mr. Trump

On Canada-U.S. relations, a delicate balance

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a news conference in Peterborough, Ont. Friday January 13, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a news conference in Peterborough, Ont. Friday January 13, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

We may be getting closer and closer to that first meeting between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump. Former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson joins us to discuss what Trump wants from NAFTA renegotiations, and how Trudeau has to walk a fine line with any criticism of an unpredictable president.

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Trump and Trudeau

How Trudeau could play nice with Trump

If physical security and economic growth are priorities for Trump, Canada might be in a good shape, says expert

Mike Blanchfield and Jordan Press, The Canadian Press

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson looks on as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes opening remarks before meeting with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities in Ottawa, Friday, January 20, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA – Boost defence spending, dial down the volume on battling climate change and find a bridge or energy project to build together.

That was the expert advice Prime Minister Justin Trudeau received Friday on how to get along with new U.S. President Donald Trump and make Canada relevant to his “America First” policy.

Derek Burney, a former Canadian ambassador to the U.S. under Brian Mulroney, said Trump’s protectionist, pro-American inauguration speech need not be cause for the Trudeau government light its “hair on fire” because there is plenty of policy space for Canada to plug into.

“If physical security and economic growth are his priorities, we’re in good shape to be constructively co-operative with him on both,” said Burney.

“We have common infrastructure that needs modernizing along our border.” He suggested joining forces to modernize the Canada-U.S. electricity grid, or jointly building the proposed Gordie Howe Bridge between southern Ontario and Michigan.

Boosting defence spending should also be seriously considered, said Burney because the U.S. is spending a disproportionate amount in NATO — something Trump has complained loudly about this past week.

Roland Paris, Trudeau’s former foreign policy adviser, said increasing defence spending makes sense regardless of Trump, because it’s a necessary “insurance policy” in an unstable world beset with security threats.

“The ‘America First’ model that Trump has articulated poses a signal challenge to all of America’s partners, whether it’s Europe partners, other members of NATO, Mexico, Canada.”

RELATED: And the biggest economic uncertainty for Canada under Trump is…

Canada doesn’t need to be scared of the Trump administration as long as it creates “a relationship where they see us as partners, not competition,” said Georganne Burke, an American-born Trump supporter who is a vice-president of a Toronto public relations firm.

But Trudeau and his ministers have to hold firm to their constructive approach towards wanting to find common ground with Trump and “stay away from the snark” in its messaging, she said.

That means toning down the rhetoric on the threats posed by climate change because most U.S. conservatives were angered by Barack Obama’s characterization of it as the greatest threat to the world, she said. “They will be willing to talk about environmental issues but they’re going to talk about it in a more conservative fashion.”

Colin Robertson, a veteran ex-diplomat with extensive U.S. experience, said it is crucial for Trudeau and his team to continue pushing the fact that millions of American jobs depend on trade with Canada and that 35 U.S. states count Canada as their top customer.

Robertson said Trudeau took the right approach when said he looked forward to working not only with Trump’s administration but with Congress, state and local governments “to restore prosperity to the middle class on both sides of the border and to create a safer and more peaceful world.”

Trudeau reminded Trump of Canada’s historically close ties with the U.S. in his congratulatory statement issued minutes after the billionaire businessman was sworn in as the 45th president.

“This enduring partnership is essential to our shared prosperity and security,” Trudeau said, citing “robust” trade, investment and economic ties that have long linked the two countries, while supporting millions of jobs.

“We both want to build economies where the middle class, and those working hard to join it, have a fair shot at success.”

Trudeau also spoke to the provincial and territorial premiers about the new administration.

His office said he and the premiers stressed the importance of the Canada-U.S. relationship and discussed the opportunities presented by the transition in Washington.

RELATED: How the Trudeau government is bracing for Trump

Earlier Friday, the prime minister urged the mayors of Canada’s biggest cities to keep close ties with their American counterparts to maintain an open border with the U.S. Those relationships will be vital to ensuring open dialogue and trade between the two countries, he said.

The mayors say their relationships with municipal leaders on the other side could serve as a counterbalance to any protectionist movements initiated by the Trump administration, given the trade ties between Canada and American cities and states.

“The United States is not just one president,” said Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, who pointed to an upcoming meeting he has with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel on the issue of climate change.

“It’s a complex system and we’ll do what we have to do. We are already working really hard with different colleagues from south of the border.”

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said he hopes Canada remains open to immigrants from all over the world should Trump follow through on his protectionist threats.

“Let’s ensure that we are open to the world, to trade, to brains to money to ideas and make sure that we seize on this opportunity.”

Toronto Mayor John Tory said taking a seat in the Oval Office could change Trump.

“You realize you have to represent and lead everyone. So I’m hopeful that President Trump will understand that with that office.”

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Discussing Super Tuesday with Evan Solomon

Will Donald Trump shatter the Republican Party?

The Republican Establishment dismisses Trump—until it endorses him. Can he take hold of the party?

Evan Solomon  March 2, 2016  Macleans

Hillary Clinton is edging closer to breaking the great presidential glass ceiling, gaining critical delegates on Super Tuesday in her quest to become the Democratic Party’s first female nominee. But most eyes remain riveted on the Republican race. Donald Trump, the populist, so-called “outsider” candidate, roared closer to the Republican nomination with seven big wins on Super Tuesday—and now has the momentum to lock up the nomination. During Trump’s rambling victory speech, one-time competitor and current supporter Chris Christie stood behind him, looking lost in a political Twilight Zone, his dazed face mirroring America’s confusion. Is Donald Trump really about to win?

But still, it’s not over. Neither Ted Cruz, who won three states, nor Marco Rubio, who won one, are going away. Rubio was badly mauled on Super Tuesday and most expect him to eventually drop out. But maybe he watched Leonardo DiCaprio fight the bear in The Revenant or maybe, like so many other Republicans, he is blinded by a toxic loathing for Trump, because he insists he will remain in the race until the convention.

Screen Shot 2016-03-02 at 8.32.33 PM

Trump, though divisive, is driving huge interest in the race and huge voting numbers. Now the question is: Will he end up shattering the Republican Party?

To get a read on the most unpredictable, vexatious political race in generations, and to find out if Trump is on his way to victory, Evan Solomon spoke to Colin Robertson, a former diplomat who served in the United States and is now the vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.


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Remembering Ken Taylor

Remembering Ken Taylor: ‘An unconventional diplomat’

Oysters, martinis, and effective diplomacy. A colleague remembers former diplomat Ken Taylor

October 15, 2015

Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador to Iran, briefs a reporter on the current conditions in Iran one week before leaving Iran with six Americans in a 1980 file photo. Taylor, who sheltered six U.S. citizens during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, has died, says a family friend THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Peter BreggPeter Bregg/CP

On news of the death of Ken Taylor, at 81, I called Colin Robertson, another former Canadian diplomat, who served under Taylor in the early 1980s in New York, soon after Taylor became a hero for his role in hiding six Americans in Tehran during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979. Robertson, who lives in Ottawa now and works with the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, spoke about Taylor’s glory days following the “Canadian Caper.”

Q: What were your thoughts on hearing that your old boss had died?

A: Ken was a great Canadian patriot, a hero, but Ken was also really cool. I first met him when I was posted to New York in 1980, and he had of course already performed the great “Canadian Caper” in Tehran, and the government had appointed him our consul general there, partly because of his celebrity, the magnetism Ken had, and the importance of New York to the diplomatic establishment.

Q: So it was a good fit.

A: He took the town by storm. Anywhere he went. Even before he arrived, we saw it. Americans everywhere would thank us for what we’d done. Sending Ken to New York was exactly the right thing. He fit right into that highly cosmopolitan city, but he was still proudly Canadian. We had issues he was able to advance.

Q: What was he like to work under?

A: He was an unconventional diplomat, certainly for that era. First of all, he didn’t wear the classic blue suit; he always was always in a fashionable suit that suited him. Of course, he had that great hair, all the curls, and then the dark glasses that were his signature. Always a smile on his face. He was always approachable and personable. He had no desk in his office. He had a coffee table. You’d sit around it and deal with issues.

Q: He must have made quite an impression on you as a new guy.

A: I traveled with him as a junior officer. In his briefcase, there was always a novel—Bonfire of the Vanities—or a magazine—Sports Illustrated. It wasn’t the heavy-duty stuff. I remember him teasing me. I was traveling with a copy of Foreign Affairs. He said, “Colin, you gotta lighten up.”

There’s one episode that really sticks with me. We were traveling up to Yale, where he had a series of speeches to give. We didn’t take the car. He said, no, let’s take the train, because we could go to the bar car and have a martini. After we’d had oysters at Grand Central Station. And we talked. He pointed out that it was really important to understand the society as a whole if you were going to be a good diplomat. It wasn’t straight politics, or economics, or trade; it was understanding the culture in which you were working and having an empathy for it.

Q: You saw that in his way of doing diplomacy?

A: Ken had empathy for everybody, including the Iranian people. Remember, this was a time where the Iranians were not terribly popular, because of what had happened to the United States. He had a way—his own gentle way—of encouraging Americans that while they might have a disagreement with the Ayatollah and ruling elite in Iran, the Iranian people had great affection for America, and never break those links.

Q: And you feel that was effective, not just a nice way of looking at the world?

A: Ken defied the traditional norms of diplomacy, but he always achieved what we set out to. He was remarkably effective. As a boss, you couldn’t help but like him. He left it to you to get the job done. He wasn’t a micro-manager in any sense. He traveled a great deal because he was in great demand. But when he was there, it was just fun and interesting and you learned the craft. This how he did business. I’ve talked to people who were with him in Tehran, and before, and this is how he was. He created a sense of team around a shared purpose.

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Canada and the World

Just how seriously is Canada’s voice taken now?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has a much weaker record on foreign policy than he would have Canadians believe

John Geddes Macleans

October 9, 2014

It was a moment made-to-order for Stephen Harper’s dark way of talking about the world. Going back to the 2011 election, the Prime Minister has often portrayed Canada as an island of safety in a global sea of dangers. Sometimes that imagery comes off as alarmist, but the rhetoric works when the topic at hand is the rise of Islamic State extremism in Syria and Iraq. So, when Harper rose in the House of Commons last week to make his case for joining U.S. President Barack Obama’s air campaign against the terrorists, he sounded very much himself in framing the disturbing new threat. He also said that deploying CF-18 fighter jets was necessary to maintain Canada’s international standing. “If Canada wants to keep its voice in the world—and we should, since so many of our challenges are global—being a free rider means you are not taken seriously,” Harper said.

Perhaps inadvertently, though, Harper suggested a question: Just how seriously is Canada’s voice taken now? Conservatives’ claims about having restored Canada’s clout on the world stage have always rested heavily on their reinvestment in the military. But Harper’s early defence-spending hikes turned to cuts after the 2009 recession, while he staged a tactical retreat from his high-profile pledge to buy F-35 jets to replace the aging CF-18s—eroding his image as an unwavering builder of the Canadian Forces’ might. After more than eight years of his rule, does Canada’s military reputation really rank noticeably higher? As Obama assembled his coalition to bomb Islamic State (also know as ISIS), the U.S. signed up a raft of other allies days, or even weeks, before Canada, including bigger military powers such as France and Britain, but also the likes of Australia, Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands.

Of course, standing on defence isn’t the only measure of Harper’s strength or weakness in the world. Back before his 2006 election win, he set Canada-U.S. relations as the litmus test. As Opposition leader in 2002, Harper delivered a tough attack in the House on then-prime minister Jean Chrétien’s “consistent and complete inability” to bolster Canadian economic interests in the U.S. As PM, however, Harper hasn’t fared better. American border restrictions remain a serious Canadian government frustration. The low point came in early 2012, when Obama told Harper there would be no quick approval of the Keystone XL pipeline to siphon Alberta crude to U.S. refineries. A wounded Harper sent out Joe Oliver, then his natural resources minister, to tell reporters the “decision by the Obama administration underlines the importance of diversifying and expanding our markets, including the growing Asian market.”

For those who remember Harper’s opposition days, that message delivered by Oliver, now Harper’s finance minister, had an ironic ring to it. Back in his 2002 assault on Liberal foreign policy, Harper had derided Chrétien’s attempts at diversifying Canada’s trade beyond the U.S. as an unrealistic echo of the so-called “third option” pursued by Pierre Trudeau in the 1970s, “which did not work then and is not working now.” Harper learned the hard way that there was something to the old Liberal position that Washington’s intransigence leaves Canada no choice but to cultivate trade options overseas. Still, Conservative fans of his no-nonsense style can at least take solace in the way Harper has ditched the old soft-power Liberal brand of multilateralism—the ethos behind former preoccupations such as creating the International Criminal Court, or a treaty to ban land mines—for much sterner stuff.

Or has he? In the days leading up to a key Harper speech at the United Nations late last month, advance stories were full of confident predictions about which world issues he would tackle. After snubbing the General Assembly for three years—ever since his government’s embarrassing failure to win a UN vote for a temporary seat on its Security Council in 2010—the PM had to be returning to blast Russia for incursions into Ukraine and to denounce Islamic State outrages in Iraq. Or so it was assumed. As it turned out, he spoke almost entirely about an aid initiative to improve the health of mothers and newborns. Alluding only vaguely to border tensions in Eastern Europe and bloodshed in the Middle East, he urged UN members to look past violent conflicts to “the long-term opportunities and efforts that can truly transform our world.”

It was a classically Canadian internationalist plea, issued in the New York temple to multilateralism held sacred by Harper’s most bitter critics. Was this really the same Harper who had so often scoffed at Canada’s historic approach to the UN as a matter of  “going along to get along”? Even more scornfully, he once summed up his foreign-policy philosophy this way: “It is no longer to please every dictator with a vote at the United Nations.” But, with the maternal and child health initiative, a growing preoccupation of Harper’s for several years now, he is clearly trying to put his stamp on what looks like the sort of UN-focused project his Conservatives used to mock Liberals for championing.

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly at the United Nations in New York on September 25, 2014. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly at the United Nations in New York on September 25, 2014. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

It would be an absurd stretch to suggest that the Harper who championed the Forces, was suspicious of the UN, and assigned enormous importance to Canada-U.S. economic relations, has disappeared. But he has found those pillars too unsteady to bear the full weight of his foreign policy. It’s been a steep learning curve. Before he won power in 2006, he had barely travelled outside Canada and had focused almost exclusively on domestic issues, mostly economic and constitutional. “Since coming to office,” he told Maclean’s in a 2011 interview, “the thing that’s probably struck me the most in terms of my previous expectations—I don’t even know what my expectations were—is not just how important foreign affairs/foreign relations is, but, in fact, that it’s become almost everything.”

Harper inherited the most challenging overseas file in a generation: Afghanistan. Five weeks after being sworn in as Prime Minister on Feb. 6, 2006, he was on a Kandahar airfield telling the assembled troops, “You can’t lead from the bleachers; I want Canada to be a leader.” His Conservatives backed that up by boosting annual defence spending from about $15 billion the year before they took power to closer to $20 billion. Impressive as that top-line figure is, though, it hardly tells the whole story.

David Perry, a senior analyst at the Conference of Defence Associations Institute in Ottawa, offers perhaps the most fine-grained analysis of Canada’s military budget available, outside of classified documents. Perry says defence spending, adjusted for inflation, is actually lower today than it was in 2007. He points to four consecutive years of shrinking outlays on new military hardware, a trend he now calls “seemingly irreversible.”

Perry even argues that there never was any sharp divide on defence between Liberal and Conservative times. The real watershed came in 2005, he contends, when the Liberals, flush with surpluses after slaying the deficit, reinvested heavily in the Department of National Defence. Taking over the following year, Harper built on that new spending policy, to be sure, but only until the 2009 recession. Since then, according to Perry’s analysis, spending restraint has again been the order of the day, with defence absorbing fully a quarter of all federal spending cuts in last spring’s budget.


Translating budget numbers into a real understanding of military readiness is notoriously difficult. Senior officers are reticent to speak out. Back in 2012, however, Lt.-Gen. Peter Devlin, then commander of the army, surprised a Senate committee by disclosing that his land force’s operating budget had been slashed by 22 per cent. Devlin retired last year to become president of Fanshawe College in London, Ont. In a recent interview, he said cuts shrunk battalions, which are supposed to be made up of about 800 troops, to 500, and those diminished infantry units are getting “dramatically less” training in the field. “That’s what affects operational readiness,” Devlin said.

If Harper wants to keep making overseas commitments, Perry adds, spending will have to be increased again. He pointed to stepped-up NATO activity in Europe, reacting to Russia’s menacing posture along Ukraine’s border, and the six-month Iraq deployment, which could be prolonged. Successive years of belt-tightening have reduced the Forces’ flexibility to take on such new missions. “Relative to three years ago,” Perry says, “there’s much less ability to absorb incremental costs having to do with operational activity.”

More obvious than operational strains are problems in wrapping up major procurements. The lifespans of the CF-18s—on average nearly three decades old—are being extended at great cost, as a result of long-running indecision over their replacement. After announcing their intention to acquire 65 of the still-in-development F-35 Joint Strike Fighters in 2010, the Conservatives were pummelled for hiding the true cost, likely $45 billion, and for failing to make the case for the cutting-edge F-35s over jets already in production. As well, two Aurora surveillance planes that will be accompanying the CF-18s to Iraq are also about 30 years old, part of a fleet slated for replacement by the Tories early on, until that plan was abandoned as too costly. One can only imagine the ridicule Conservatives, in their opposition days, would have heaped on the Liberals for such handling of major Air Force procurements.

So the military rebirth touted by Tories as Canada’s new calling card abroad is under strain. The Ottawa-Washington relationship—flagged by Harper, before he got the job, as any PM’s top foreign-policy priority—is stressed. Harper’s rapport with other world leaders hardly makes up for these gaps. He’s chummiest with like-minded conservatives—such as Australia’s Tony Abbott and, more controversial, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu—from countries that don’t rank as top trading partners or first-tier powers. That leaves pursuing trade deals, such as those hammered out with South Korea and the European Union, as the acknowledged strongest element of Harper’s international efforts. “This government has, from the very beginning, emphasized the substance of a trade agenda,” says Roland Paris, director of the University of Ottawa’s Centre for International Policy Studies, otherwise a forceful Harper critic.

But trade alone isn’t typically enough to cement a leader’s reputation as an accomplished global player. If Harper’s recent UN speech was any indication, he’s staking a different sort of claim. Spotlighting his leadership on the UN Commission on Information and Accountability for Women’s and Children’s Health, which he co-chairs with Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, takes Harper far outside the bounds of familiar Conservative emphasis on “interests” (typically trade and investment) or “convictions” (notably, backing embattled countries such as Israel and Ukraine). It takes him to the UN.

It’s the same UN that runs the climate-change negotiations where Harper’s delegations—defending Canada’s oil sector—are widely regarded as obstructionists. It’s the UN that John Baird, Harper’s foreign minister, once accused of indulging a “preoccupation with procedure and process” so stultifying, he swore off any future Canadian involvement in “how the UN arranges its affairs.” And it’s the UN where criticisms of Israel frequently arise, which the Harper government unfailing decries—as it did last summer when then-UN high commissioner for human rights, Navanethem Pillay, called for a ceasefire after Israel’s bombing of Gaza caused many civilian casualties, prompting Baird to scold Pillay for being neither “helpful nor reflective of the reality of this crisis.”

What a strange turn it will be if Harper’s signature foreign-policy achievement ends up being a UN-based project. Perhaps the maternal and child health initiative represents a sort of reconciliation, on his own terms, with the multilateralism long associated with the loathed Liberals. And, on other fronts, fresh chances for him to buff up his international credentials may be emerging. This fall’s economic update is expected to herald a return to balanced federal books, perhaps allowing Defence an injection of new money, or, at least, relief from further restraint. In responding to the Islamic State crisis, Harper has been unstintingly outspoken in crediting Obama’s leadership, along with sending the CF-18s, which can’t hurt bilateral relations.


Canadian soldiers from 4th platoon, bulldog company 1st Battalion, 22nd royal regiment walk during a patrol in the village of Sarah in Panjwai district of Kandahar province southern Afghanistan, in 2011. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)Canadian soldiers from 4th platoon, bulldog company 1st Battalion, 22nd royal regiment walk during a patrol in the village of Sarah in Panjwai district of Kandahar province southern Afghanistan, in 2011. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

Not surprisingly, Harper’s sharpest critics doubt his capacity to convert opportunities into a new sophistication. Roland Paris detects no sign of Harper “paying attention to the context of foreign affairs.” Even some of the Prime Minister’s avowed admirers see plenty of room for improvement. Derek Burney, a top architect of Brian Mulroney’s Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, now a senior adviser at the international law firm Norton Rose Fulbright, often leaps to Harper’s defence. Yet he regards this PM’s top priorities, such as his rock-ribbed support for Israel, as too often detached from any strategic framing of Canadian interests. “What we’ve had is rather spasmodic foreign policy based on conviction or principle—very stout,” Burney says. “I like the conviction, but I’d like to see more strategy on places like China.”

Among foreign-policy experts, geopolitical strategy is much in the air again. Once overshadowed by investment and trade, during the optimistic end-of-history era after the collapse of the Soviet Union, deep thinking about intractable problems has returned, especially in the wake of troubling developments in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and, lately, Hong Kong. All serve as reminders that convictions are no substitute, in an often bewildering world, for elite expertise. To obtain that rarefied commodity, argues Colin Robertson, a veteran former diplomat, whose postings included Washington and the UN, “you need hard-core, classic diplomatic skills.” After eight years of skeptical Conservative oversight, however, he doubts a demoralized foreign service is working seamlessly with Harper and his senior political aides. “If you beat a dog all the time, then the dog isn’t going to do what you like,” says Robertson, now vice-president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

But Burney counters that Harper’s detractors are delusional if they imagine Canadian foreign policy should return to some bygone Liberal brand of diplomat-driven multilateralism. “Let’s not luxuriate in the myth of how wonderful it used to be,” he says. In fact, there was a good, strong whiff of that sort of nostalgia in the air on Parliament Hill during the debate over the Iraq air-strikes deployment. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau played to the notion of a special Canadian vocation for peaceful contributions such as medical aid or refugee airlifts. “We can be resourceful, and there are significant, substantial, non-combat roles that Canada can play,” Trudeau said, “and some we can play better than many, or perhaps any, of our allies.” NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said, “Canada’s first contribution should be to use every diplomatic, humanitarian and financial resource at our disposal.”


The stark contrast exposed by the partisan clash over the air strikes might play to Harper’s advantage. Last month, the Ottawa polling firm Abacus Data asked Canadians about sending fighter jets against Islamic State in Iraq, and 57 per cent supported the plan, against just 34 per cent who opposed it, with 14 per cent who were not sure. That suggests Harper can expect far stronger approval of this decision than he enjoys overall on foreign policy; the same Abacus poll said 28 per cent favour his foreign-policy approach over Trudeau’s, not much better than the 23 per cent who think they’d prefer Trudeau’s if he became prime minister, over Harper’s. (Twenty-six per cent had no preference.)
Harper’s record on repositioning Canada in the world is uneven. But the urgent question of this moment isn’t about how well he works with the White House on economic matters, or if he has equipped and funded the military quite so generously as he lets on, or even if his approach to UN-based multilateralism is consistent. The immediate concern is about Canada’s contribution to a global coalition to stop Islamic State terrorism from spreading. Policy debate is abstract. Military action is tangible.

The test, at least in the coming weeks, will likely have less to do with the Prime Minister’s foreign-policy acumen than with the accuracy of CF-18 strikes somewhere in Iraq, or perhaps Syria. Sorting out how this changes the wider view of foreign affairs under Harper will have to wait until sometime after the smoke clears.

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Ballistic Missile Defence

Star wars, the sequel

Canada is reconsidering joining the controversial U.S. missile defence plan it rejected in 2004

Luiza Ch. Savage

May 8, 2014

AFP/Getty ImagesAFP/Getty Images

It was in a speech in Halifax in December 2004 that a newly re-elected George W. Bush—worried about the nuclear threat from North Korea, Iran and from terrorists—pitched Canadians on a continental missile defence shield “to protect the next generation of Canadians and Americans from the threats we know will arise.” Paul Martin, then the prime minister, rebuffed him, to the relief of his fractious caucus.

Now Stephen Harper’s government is reconsidering whether Canada should join in the controversial program as part of its national defence strategy.

Since 2005, 30 interceptor missiles—the 17-metre-tall infrared-guided rocket built to collide with enemy warheads 150 km above Earth—have been installed in America, most in Alaska with a handful in California. Barack Obama’s administration has said it’s studying the addition of a third cluster in the eastern U.S. (This is not Ronald Reagan’s 1980s’ “strategic defence initiative,” known as Star Wars, that envisioned the weaponization of space. Today’s system relies on ground- and sea-based interceptors that do not carry nuclear material.)

Already through the binational command at NORAD, Canadians share information in early warning and attack assessments with the U.S. But advocates of the system complain Canada doesn’t have a say in responding to a potential missile attack. “It seems ludicrous, but when it comes time to make the critical launch decisions, our officials literally have to leave the room,” says Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat in Washington and a fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, who plans to testify on the subject before the joint committee on defence in Ottawa on May. 8. Robertson says Canada should benefit from the U.S. security umbrella. “The algorithms developed by U.S. Northern Command to protect the American homeland do not include Canadian cities like Edmonton or Saskatoon.” (Some Canadian cities benefit from proximity to large U.S. centres.)

Canada has already endorsed missile defence internationally. In 2010, all 28 countries of the NATO alliance agreed to “develop the capability to defend our populations and territories against ballistic missile attack as a core element of our collective defence.”

The vulnerability of North America, however, is open to debate. In 2013, North Korea boasted it could attack the U.S. mainland. “They probably can’t—but we don’t like the margin of error,” said Obama, who responded by ordering up 14 new interceptors by 2017. As Iran acquired short and medium-range missiles that could reach Europe or the Middle East, Obama placed interceptors aboard navy warships that could be closer to Iran.

Now Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has renewed interest in bolstering missile defences in Europe, including demands to speed up the deployment of missile interceptors in Poland and Romania.

What role Canada could play in the system by “joining” it is unclear. (The U.S. has not pressed Canada to contribute and in 2004 it didn’t ask for financial support or to put interceptors on Canadian soil.) The system’s critics are still numerous. Missile defence “has yielded a dysfunctional weapon system and has set back efforts at nuclear disarmament,” says former Canadian diplomat Paul Meyer, a fellow in international security at Simon Fraser University.

When the U.S. sent a missile destroyer ship to Spain last month to “reassure allies” in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Moscow said it proved false Washington’s past assurances that the sea-based interceptors were aimed only at Iran. “It all confirms our previous estimates that the missile shield in Europe is aimed at undermining Russia’s nuclear deterrent,” said Russian deputy defence minister Anatoly Antonov.

But the clearest obstacles are technical. Only half of test launches have succeeded in intercepting their practice targets. “Neither North Korea nor Iran have [intercontinental ballistic missiles] that could threaten North America. The current interceptors would be useless against them even if they possessed such missiles,” says Meyer. Thorough testing of the system won’t be completed “until at least 2022,” according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. But the Harper government can’t wait until then to make a decision.

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