At a Canadian-American conference in Washington a year ago, former ambassadors from each side were weighing in on the prospect of better trade relations.
The name Peter Navarro, who is Donald Trump’s trade adviser, came up. It would help a lot, said Gordon Giffin, who served as Ottawa ambassador under Bill Clinton, if Mr. Navarro was “sent off to Peru.”
“Not far enough,” piped in Gary Doer, U.S. envoy under Stephen Harper. He and Mr. Giffin and other diplomats had seen too much of Mr. Navarro’s bomb-throwing, antediluvian approach to trade with allies.
The wiry, temperamental 70-year-old economist is characterized by Canadian players on the bilateral front as an ultra-protectionist whack-job. But rather than have their wish realized of seeing him banished, Mr. Navarro has gained stature and influence.
Along with his major trade responsibilities, he is a driving force behind Mr. Trump’s America First policies, and he has recently been appointed policy coordinator for the Defense Production Act. When Mr. Trump reopens his country, which will likely be sooner than Justin Trudeau does his, protectionist Navarro will have his ear at the moment when the interdependent world economy can ill afford to go in a beggar-thy-neighbour direction.
With the reopening of the Canada-U.S. border, former ambassador David MacNaughton, who was in deep disagreement with Mr. Navarro through much of his tenure, says there’s an opportunity to build on the new NAFTA. “U.S. protectionism vis-à-vis Canada would be a mistake for them. Doesn’t mean they won’t.”
Not with the truculent Navarro at large. His reputation as Canada’s public enemy No. 1 on team Trump is well earned. His most recent hostile act was in using his new defense authority to try to prevent 3M from exporting protective masks to Canada for its fight against COVID-19. That issue was resolved Monday following bitter complaints from the Canadian side.
But there will be other eruptions. Mr. Navarro recently drafted an executive order that ominously allows him to use national-security grounds to limit imports of foreign medicines, raw materials and vaccines.
This brought to mind a move that outraged Ottawa a couple of years ago when he used the same security rationale to justify Mr. Trump’s imposing of steel and aluminum tariffs on Canada. This was after he’d strongly sided with Mr. Trump in advocating a total withdrawal by the U.S. from NAFTA. Like this President, he could care less about any historic special relationship with Canada.
A long-time China hawk, Mr. Navarro is now embroiled in a coronavirus controversy. The New York Times reported Tuesday that he warned Mr. Trump in a memorandum as early as Jan. 29 that COVID-19 could devastate the country. In response, Mr. Trump restricted travel from China two days later. But he subsequently played down the virus threat and said recently that no one could have predicted its disastrous impact. No one except, as it turns out, his good friend Mr. Navarro.
In broadening his turf to COVID-19, Mr. Navarro got into a shouting match with Dr. Anthony Fauci, insisting to the President’s expert on infectious diseases that the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine was a good way to treat the coronavirus. He was roundly denounced in the media for trying to come across as a medical expert.
The same Mr. Navarro was behind the plan for stationing troops near the Canadian border, an idea which has since been discarded. He is the one who went on Fox News after the 2018 G7 summit in Quebec to say of Justin Trudeau that "there’s a special place in hell for any foreign leader that engages in bad-faith diplomacy with President Donald J. Trump.”
I met Mr. Navarro way back when we were at the Kennedy School at Harvard. He was a hothead then. He is a hothead now. But like Stephen Miller, the President’s race-baiting immigration adviser, he’s won over Mr. Trump by kneeling to his every word.
His demands for steel and aluminum tariffs led to the resignation of moderate Gary Cohn, Mr. Trump’s top economic adviser, who worked well with Canada. In Bob Woodward’s book Fear, Mr. Cohn depicts Mr. Navarro as a rogue actor, saying “He’s the source of all the chaos in this building.”
Not all, maybe. But with Canada and other allies, he has wreaked havoc. Having not being exiled to Peru or a farther destination, as the former ambassadors hoped, more of the same can now be anticipated.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.