Skip to main content

Opinion David MacNaughton: Ambassador, bridge-builder – and dragon tamer?

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.”

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter