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James A. Baker III is a former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and Secretary of State.

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U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney smile at saluting officer on June 19, 1988. Both leaders were in Toronto for the G7 Economic Summit.Erik Christensen/The Globe and Mail

Brian Mulroney was a wonderful friend for over 30 years and a trusted international partner when I was in government. He was also a model of leadership. With Mr. Mulroney as its prime minister, Canada punched well above its weight on the world stage. Regardless of how one gauges the ups and downs of his public life, Mr. Mulroney built a considerable legacy that continues to benefit his country and the world today, particularly through his advancement of free trade.

Mr. Mulroney was a leader in the truest sense of the word, one capable of recognizing the most important challenges facing his country. Once he identified those challenges, he enthusiastically set about resolving them. “You accumulate political capital to spend it on noble causes for Canada,” he once said. “If you’re afraid to spend your capital, you shouldn’t be there.”

Above all, Mr. Mulroney understood the importance of trade to his homeland. It was, he believed, Canada’s life blood. And so, he made it his objective to strengthen Canada’s stature as a first-class world trader.

Together with U.S. presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Mr. Mulroney advanced a compelling, new vision for North America that removed many of the outstanding barriers to trade in goods and services. Together, these leaders constructed the world’s biggest and most successful trading bloc – first under the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and then under the North American Free Trade Agreement, with the addition of Mexico. (NAFTA was replaced by the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement in 2020, with provisions very close to those of NAFTA.)

Today, the integrated economies of North America have a combined population of half a billion people and a total GDP that is slightly over US$30-trillion, which is much larger than China’s. As this integration occurred, the results were quite positive for Canada. Its share of goods and services that were exported grew from 25 per cent in 1989 to 30 per cent in 2021, according to the World Bank.

Despite anti-trade fervour in Washington and across the globe today, North America remains a global economic juggernaut. Co-operation among the three NAFTA countries is one source of America’s strength today. So are the close community and cultural ties that have developed among them. NAFTA helped all three countries succeed in a highly competitive world.

This historic enterprise began with Mr. Mulroney’s early overtures to Mr. Reagan for a bilateral free trade agreement. In Mr. Reagan, Mr. Mulroney found an immediate and enthusiastic partner. As secretary of the Treasury during the final stages of the bilateral free trade talks, I can attest that Mr. Mulroney was effective, shrewd and principled. Negotiations were challenging, protracted and difficult, but they never descended into rancor.

With his characteristic upbeat nature, Mr. Mulroney upheld the interests of Canada with a bold vision. But he also understood the importance of securing, at the same time, mutual benefits that would enhance the prosperity and security of North America as a whole.

The close partnership Canada had with the United States under Mr. Mulroney’s leadership was a compelling symbol to the rest of the world during the geostrategic upheaval following the break-up of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact. Our bilateral partnership continues to serve as a paradigm for successful relations between neighbours.

Mr. Mulroney deeply understood the importance of strong friendships between countries and their leaders. When the time came to eulogize Mr. Bush at his state funeral on Dec. 5, 2018, Mr. Mulroney rose at the Washington National Cathedral to praise his longtime friend as a beacon of leadership. “When George Bush was president of the United States of America,” Mr. Mulroney said, “every single head of government in the world knew they were dealing with a true gentleman, a genuine leader – one who was distinguished, resolute and brave.”

Now that the time has come to eulogize Mr. Mulroney, I think I know how Mr. Bush would respond were he alive today. “Those generous remarks Brian made were truer about him,” the former president might humbly say, “than they were about me.”

On the day of the state funeral of Mr. Bush, flags on all federal buildings in Canada were flown at half-mast.

This week, flags in the United States and around the globe should be flown at half-mast in memory of prime minister Brian Mulroney – for a magnificent leader has passed from a world he did so much to improve.

  • Former prime minister Brian Mulroney leaves Parliament Hill on June 6, 2012.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

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