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Opinion At long last, Americans come to their senses on trade

Never in the modern era was Canada’s economic well-being so threatened as by the current presidency. Donald Trump’s aggression was based on the phony-as-baloney, fatuous premise that the northern neighbour was ripping off his bounteous land.

He was prepared to demolish the bilateral relationship’s cornerstone, the continental trade accord. If not that, he would have ruined the Canadian economy with backbreaking auto tariffs.

With an 11th hour agreement on a tentative trade pact, the big scare is over. Kaput. Stability returns. All’s well that ends hell. What happened was that the American side finally got reasonable.

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From the get-go, this was a lopsided negotiation. The Trump team threw haymakers, making demands and threats, some of them outrageous. The Canadian side played defence, standing in the corner fending off punches until the big guy finally backed off a bit, making important concessions.

In coming to a proposed agreement that has won the blessing of free-trade architect Brian Mulroney, patience paid off. So did having the President’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, at the bargaining table. The much maligned Mr. Kushner, up to his eyeballs in Russian collusion intrigue and other smash-ups, is a New York moderate, not one to be taken in by the nattering nabobs of nativism at the White House.

Having familial access to the President, he was able to reason with him and drive home the importance of getting Canada signed on to the trade pact with Mexico. Head U.S. trade negotiator Robert Lighthizer said Monday that the deal couldn’t have been done without him. “Kushner was really important,” said Canadian ambassador David MacNaughton. “There’s no question he played a big role.”

Canadians can give him a nod and there may be some who will ease off on their anger – just a bit anyway – toward Mr. Trump himself. Everyone agreed that NAFTA was badly in need of modernization, that it had to be brought into the world of the internet, the app economy and smart manufacturing. The new accord brings that and more – such as reworking of auto trade, which gives the Canadian sector an opportunity to become much more competitive.

If in fact the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement works, Mr. Trump should get some of the credit. He was the one who insisted, though for reasons other than modernization, that NAFTA be renegotiated. It likely would not have happened under a Hillary Clinton presidency.

But having put his northern neighbour through the wringer as he has done the past couple of years, we can hold off on the applause and send some the way of Canadian negotiators for fending off many of his threats: the ones to do away with the dispute settlement mechanism, the ones to impose auto tariffs, the ones to have cultural protections removed, the ones to have a short-term sunset clause.

The Canadians had to give on President Trump’s demands on more access to the dairy market and on patent protection on pharmaceuticals. They didn’t get the steel and aluminum tariffs eliminated, although Mr. MacNaughton for one is confident that will be done down the line.

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The new agreement, which still has to be approved by Congress, doesn’t mean Mr. Trump has changed his America-first creed. But the amount of damage that can be rendered northward has substantially diminished, as was apparent in a Rose Garden news conference Monday where Mr. Trump was suddenly sounding positive about Canada and its prime minister.

The protracted trade fight didn’t do any damage to the Canadian image in the United States. The President’s frequent Canada-bashing didn’t work because the American media didn’t buy it. Their attitude was that you don’t treat the gentle giant this way. By focusing on Canada so much, Mr. Trump heightened the Canadian profile. Never has this country been the subject of so much front-page news in the United States.

By contrast, Mr. Trump’s rock-bottom reputation in Canada helped our negotiators stay the course and hold out for a reasonable deal. It provided Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with political cover. Canadians understood what he was up against.

Everyone can now move on. The odds in this confrontation were stacked against a good outcome for Canada. The odds didn’t hold up.

In Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland commented on the signing of a tentative USMCA trade deal that is likely to replace NAFTA. The Globe and Mail
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