Colin Robertson is a former Canadian diplomat and now vice-president and a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
So U.S. President Donald Trump wants a trade war.
After the diplomatic disaster of the Group of Seven summit in Charlevoix, Que., it is now clear that for Mr. Trump it is not about leading – the traditional role of the U.S. President – but about winning at any cost. Relationships are not for cultivating, but only for using to Trumpian advantage.
Canada and like-minded countries need to stick together, act in tandem and push back against Trumpist protectionism. It means taking it to him where it hurts and targeting his base: in particular the farm community. At the same time, we need to tell Americans, who will suffer job loss and higher prices, that they have only their president to blame.
For more than 500 days now, Justin Trudeau has made nice to Mr. Trump. The advice from former prime minister Brian Mulroney was correct – that the relationship with the president is the most important relationship for a prime minister and that Canada-U.S. relations, alongside national unity and national security, are the files that require a prime minister’s constant attention.
Among liberal democratic leaders, Mr. Trudeau was seen as the one who had the best relationship with Mr. Trump. He was the Trump whisperer. But Mr. Trump’s behaviour at Charlevoix, Que., was abominable.
The tweets before Charlevoix, Que., took personal shots at both Mr. Trudeau and French President Emmanuel Macron, the other leader who has cultivated Mr. Trump. The tweets afterward, insulting Mr. Trudeau, are beyond the pale. As Mr. Trudeau said, we are a polite people but we are not pushovers.
Canadians are justly outraged, but we have deep interests at stake, so we need to proceed with care and planning.
First, we need to get our act together domestically. Mr. Trudeau needs to consult with the premiers and business to get their advice on our retaliation list. What is their assessment of increased protectionism on their province and industries? What about life after the North American free-trade agreement? We will be hurt. We will need to provide adjustment assistance for the afflicted. But how would Americans like it if Canadians began to spontaneously boycott American goods, especially U.S. farm produce, and stopped travelling south for holidays?
Second, we need to take advantage of the free-trade deals that we already have in place and put real effort into matchmaking; business with business. As a matter of our national security (two can play this game), we should quickly pass the implementing legislation to bring the new Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership into effect. With Canada’s implementation, the agreement would immediately come into force.
If this means keeping parliamentarians at work into July so be it. Provincial legislatures may also have to be recalled. While they are at it they should pass their enabling legislation for the Canada-Europe Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement. This is a matter of grave national economic urgency. Canadians need to see that their legislators are acting in the national interest.
Third, we need to act in tandem with our G7 partners and like-minded countries, such as Mexico, as we collectively retaliate to the recently imposed steel and aluminium tariffs. Canada and Mexico learned the value of acting collectively when they worked together to persuade the U.S. Congress to rescind its protectionist country-of-origin labelling requirement in 2015.
American legislators respond to local pressure. They need to feel the heat of retaliation. Canada has a lot of allies, especially in the Republican congressional caucus. They don’t like Mr. Trump’s direction and are already moving to curb the trade powers that were ceded to the executive branch during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration. Hopefully, we will see then the beauty of the checks and balances at work. The U.S. founding fathers designed their system to prevent a president from becoming a king.
The more Mr. Trump attacks his fellow G7 and fellow democratically elected leaders the more difficult it makes it for them to go along with him when it counts. That includes, however unlikely, a deal with North Korea.
The road that Mr. Trump is going down makes no economic sense. George W. Bush reluctantly imposed limited steel tariffs in 2002 (Canada was exempt) and lifted them a year later because it was costing American jobs, not creating them.
Canadians are used to compromise and consensus, especially in how we handle the relationship with Uncle Sam. Manage it well and we can tell them when their breath is bad. Mr. Trump has a bad case of halitosis. We need to tell him so and serve him the bitter medicine he has brought on himself.