Think of President Donald Trump as the grouchy next-door neighbour who can’t be placated, no matter how hard you try. You invite him over for dinner. You take out his garbage when he’s away. You fawn over his bratty kids and yappy dog.
Then one day, he puts up a massive fence on the property line, plunging your once-thriving garden into darkness.
With the recent deterioration of trade relations with the United States, it’s worth asking the question: Could Ottawa have done anything differently to avoid the dark place it now finds itself? The North American free-trade agreement is hanging by a thread. The Trump administration has invoked national security to slap steep tariffs on steel and aluminum, and with threatened tariffs on the vital auto sector, it could plunge Canada’s largest province by economy into recession. On Friday, Canada retaliated with tariffs on a range of U.S. products, further ratcheting the tensions.
Back in Canada, the Conservatives are trying to pin the blame for this unfortunate state of affairs on the Trudeau government’s handling of the trade file. The Tories have vacillated between accusing the Liberals of not being amenable enough and not being tough enough. MP Randy Hoback suggested at a House of Commons committee this week that the government’s failure to do anything about a surge of Chinese steel imports in Canada somehow triggered the trade war with the United States. At another hearing, Tory foreign affairs critic Erin O’Toole confronted Global Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland for not pushing back harder when the Trump administration started making noises last year about using the obscure Section 232 of the U.S. Trade Expansion Act of 1962 to go after steel and aluminum.
Last fall, former prime minister Stephen Harper accused the Liberals of “napping on NAFTA” by not being more open to U.S. demands.
These attacks are unfair. There is no evidence that Chinese steel is getting into the United States via the back door from Canada. And as Ms. Freeland explained to Mr. O’Toole, she has had “many conversations” with U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and other top U.S. officials for more than a year, making it clear that Canada regards the tariffs as illegal and harmful to both countries.
Canada’s dilemma is that the United States’ take-no-prisoners stand on trade isn’t about us. It’s about the misguided promises that Mr. Trump made to Americans to get elected. Canada is a convenient foil for a President determined to make trade a defining issue.
It is absurd to think that Ottawa could have avoided the wrath of Mr. Trump by acting any differently. Once the U.S. made the calculation to go nuclear with a barrage of tariffs, the hope for a reasonable NAFTA outcome died. No amount of defiance – or submission – was going to change the course of events.
Ottawa has wisely pursued a good-cop, bad-cop strategy. The government cozied up to Mr. Trump, his daughter and other top cabinet officials. At the same time, it mounted a massive lobbying against protectionists in the Trump administration by finding common cause with a wide range of potential U.S. allies on trade – in Congress, in the business community and among state and local officials.
Canada has also held a firm line on what it wants in a renegotiated NAFTA, while forcefully resisting U.S. demands it can’t live with. Meanwhile, it pursued legal challenges to the various tariffs on softwood lumber, newsprint, steel and aluminum.
That isn’t to say the Trudeau government did not misjudge Mr. Trump’s darker instincts. Take, for example, Ottawa’s so-called “progressive trade agenda,” designed to overcome resistance to globalization and ensure the economic gains from trade deals are spread more broadly across society. The government vowed to advance such things as worker and Indigenous rights, gender equality, environmental protection and the right of governments to regulate in the public interest.
These are all worthy objectives. The approach might play well at home, or in getting Europe to embrace its free-trade deal with Canada.
But putting these demands on the NAFTA negotiating table didn’t get us anywhere. It didn’t win points with Mexico. And it no doubt aggravated the America-firsters in the Trump administration.
It was like offering up kale salad or sushi to a gathering of cattle ranchers.
In the end, none of that mattered. Canada was never going to get a reasonable NAFTA deal – progressive or not – from a neighbour like Donald Trump.