Has the dragon been tamed? With David MacNaughton’s announcement that he is stepping down as Canada’s ambassador to the United States, many plaudits have rolled in as to how the Trudeau government, with the envoy in a lead role, survived what’s been called the arbitrary unilateralism of the Trump administration.
Mr. MacNaughton chuckled at that characterization of the White House in an interview with The Globe and Mail yesterday, but said it was an accurate one. As for taming the dragon, he put it this way: “We’ve crossed a bridge.” Canada, he said, would not be side-swiped by any new shock measures on trade from the Trump White House.
The impulsive President, in his view, has softened his attitude toward Canada. “There’s no question he’s got a much better appreciation, not just on trade relations but for what we do in other areas like military co-operation, drug interdiction, those things.”
The departing ambassador was so confident that the new North American free-trade agreement would be ratified by the U.S. Congress that he provided a timeline. “By the end of September or October.”
Given the resistance among Congressional Democrats, that might be overly optimistic. And if the deal doesn’t go through, there’s no telling how Mr. Trump might react and how Canada might be affected.
As seen by Washington’s unresolved trade war with China, Mr. Trump has not moved off his protectionist trade stance. Nor has he altered his attack style: Get caught in his crosshairs and look out.
But that’s where, Mr. MacNaughton contends, the Trudeau government has been smart. It hasn’t provoked him. “I think the reality,” he said, speaking of Canadian negotiators, “is that no one has taken a personal shot at the guy. It doesn’t go well if you do that, right?”
In fact, there have been some rebukes. But by and large, Ottawa’s approach has been diplomatic, firm but tactful. Recently, British Ambassador Sir Kim Darroch had to exit Washington when he was discovered through leaked cables to have called Mr. Trump a “pompous fool,” among other niceties. Does Mr. MacNaughton feel fortunate some of his own cables weren’t leaked? “If they had been, they wouldn’t have found anything to be extraordinarily upset about,” he said.
Among other deeds, he helped get the new trade deal negotiated and get Mr. Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs lifted. He leaves behind many strong personal relationships with major administration figures. In helping Canada’s cause, he singled out Mr. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, top economic adviser Larry Kudlow, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, and Kelly Craft, the ambassador to Ottawa who will soon be sworn in as the U.S. envoy to the United Nations, and who Mr. MacNaughton says was especially co-operative.
Someone who received little notice but was also important in keeping Mr. Trump from going further off the rails was Vice-President Mike Pence.
Mr. MacNaughton got to know him just before the Trump inauguration thanks to a bit of luck. In seeking contacts with the Trump transition team, he was invited to a luncheon with some Republican big shots. Shortly after it began, in walked Mike Pence. The only empty seat was next to Mr. MacNaughton. He struck up a good rapport with the Veep and one of his top advisers, and that has endured.
Looking ahead, he predicts that while there will be continuing trade disputes, the more pressing challenge for Ottawa in dealing with Washington will be on defence and security issues in this hemisphere, and on the China file. “We’re in a fundamentally different world than we were in 2015 … We need a fundamental rethink about where we want to put our efforts and resources – militarily, economically, diplomatically.”
Taking over from Mr. MacNaughton – for the time being, at least – is his deputy Kirsten Hillman, who has a wealth of experience on trade files and can be expected to maintain the MacNaughton approach.
Her immediate challenge will be to keep lobbying Congress to get the new NAFTA deal ratified. She will also have to continue to press the Trump team for more support in securing the release of two Canadians detained in China following Ottawa’s arrest of a Huawei executive at Washington’s request.
It was a case of collateral damage. That’s something that happened all too often with the Trump White House on the trade file. “They’d tell me, ‘we realize you’re not part of the problem,’ ” Mr. MacNaughton said. “But we’d get side-swiped anyway.”
If we believe his words about Mr. Trump’s new-found understanding and appreciation of Canada, there will be less of that now. The dragon might not be tamed. But he’s less of a threat than he used to be.
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