If it’s not clear by now, it should be. The “win-win-win” that Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland keeps talking about at NAFTA negotiations isn’t going to happen.
The best Canada can hope for is to contain the losses. If our negotiators don’t set their sights lower than win-win-win, more fire from Donald Trump’s gunboat diplomacy is likely, possibly in the form of his threatened 25-per-cent auto tariffs.
That these talks should not be judged in the context of normal diplomatic negotiations was made ever more clear by Mr. Trump with revelations of his off-the-record remarks with Bloomberg News. He was more preposterous, slightly so anyway, than he usually is when on the record, saying there would not be any North American free-trade agreement compromises, that any deal would be “totally” on his terms, that his views of the talks were too insulting to Canadians for him to spell out.
If that’s not bargaining in bad faith, what is? In view of the sneering remarks, the Canadian side had every right to walk away from the talks. But of course, it can’t. Instead, playing it coy, not wanting to offend, being inexcusably secretive, Ms. Freeland wouldn’t even say if she raised the matter of the President’s taunts with Robert Lighthizer, the American top negotiator.
On NAFTA, the Mexicans had to make concessions to get a deal and got one they can live with. They did so behind Canada’s back in separate negotiations. They gave up the existing dispute-settlement mechanism that, for Canada, is a key component of NAFTA. But since the Americans got rid of it with Mexico, why would they reinstate it for the other NAFTA member?
For Canada, is the absence of a dispute-arbitration regime worth losing out on a whole new trade deal? Mr. Trump is apt to run roughshod over any new rules regime anyway. He is currently doing that with the World Trade Organization, which he wants to see dismantled.
Ms. Freeland had been optimistic when talking to reporters on Wednesday and Thursday. The two sides seemed very close to a new agreement. But there was a turn for the worse on Thursday night. Mr. Lighthizer, who was giving progress reports on the negotiations to the President, clearly didn’t get a green light. More than likely he got a version of the President’s off-the-record view.
Since the two countries have not been revealing any details of their discussions, there are only occasional leaks to rely on. While one can understand why diplomacy often needs to be done behind closed doors, the degree of secrecy is appalling. The stakes are large here and Canadians have a right to know more from Ms. Freeland about what is going on.
The former journalist says she doesn’t want the issues to be debated in public. But she won't even identify the issues of contention. She wouldn’t even spell out the issues that prevented, after marathon sessions, an agreement being reached this week.
She maintained that Mr. Lighthizer is bargaining in good faith. Her strategy is to try to keep the waters calm, to not set Mr. Trump’s brain on fire, which is a formidable task. With other presidents, there have been feuds aplenty, but by and large Canadians could count on a rational approach. Not with the America First manic man.
Mr. Trump is winning on the trade file, making gains with Mexico, with Europe and China. He’s doing it with bullying, bluster, lies and ultimatums. It’s the new American diplomacy. For his steel and aluminum tariffs, he invoked the absurd rationale that there was a threat to national security. His threat of auto tariffs, which make sense to no economists, have many allies frightened.
Where there is hope for Ottawa is on Capitol Hill. U.S. legislators have to ratify any new trade deal and getting approval for a bilateral pact with only Mexico presents all kinds of hurdles. There’s still a month for Canada to get a deal and it’s possible the President will realize he has to have Canada on board to get congressional approval.
In such a scenario, he might have to do some bargaining that is not totally on his own terms. He might give an inch or two. Canada won’t get a win-win-win, but we can hope its loss-loss-loss might be of smallish proportions.