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Opinion How Canada deals with America in seven simple steps

Ed Whitcomb, a former career foreign service officer, is the author of Rivals for Power: Ottawa and the Provinces

The elephant has twitched; the mouse is in danger of being squashed; and we best figure out quickly how to avoid serious damage.

We have not, in fact, been handling the U.S. as well as we should have. So let’s stop congratulating ourselves on our clever negotiating and political skills, re-examine some tactics, admit some errors, make some adjustments, prepare for major problems and make the best of it.

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Canadians are right to rally behind their government in its relations with Washington. But that does not mean slavish endorsement of the government’s strategy and tactics.

Of course, when the U.S. slaps tariffs on Canadian exports, the only response is to slap equal tariffs on theirs. If they add more tariffs, we do the same. That is not up for debate with the U.S. or within Canada.

But some of our arguments and statements have been pointless, if not contradictory, and it’s time to drop them.

First, do not tell Americans what is good for them, how many jobs depend on this or that export, and how many states do a lot of business with Canada. Americans are among the shrewdest traders in history, and they do not need foreigners telling them how their economy works or what is good for them.

Second, stop saying, “No one wins a trade war.” The fact that both sides endure costs does not mean no one wins: the Allies won the Second World War at a cost of millions of casualties. If there is a trade war, the U.S. will win, and any American who doesn’t understand that there will be costs won’t listen to anyone who says there will be.

Third, by all means say that Canada will stand up for its interests, but never say that it won’t be pushed around. That implies there is a bully, and they don’t like to be called out.

Fourth, stop saying we will “continue” to be polite, when our Prime Minister has just, in effect, called the U.S. President a bully, while our constant lectures on the advantages of NAFTA are a trifle condescending.

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Fifth, make the best case for Canada’s interests and accept that Americans are clever enough to make the best case for theirs. Stop imagining that all our trade depends on NAFTA, or that all the additional trade created by NAFTA will disappear if the treaty does not survive.

Sixth, start taking the hard decisions we have been avoiding because of our easy access to the most dynamic economy in the world. For example, reducing our internal barriers to trade, our excessive regulations, our high taxes and big deficits. Europeans and others do many things better than Canadians – it’s time to stop bragging and start copying.

Finally, instead of repeating that the United States helped establish multilateral institutions before Mr. Trump was born, recognize that a majority of Americans are probably protectionists now, a majority are Republicans, Trump won almost 50 per cent of the vote and his core base is larger than that of almost any government in Canada.

The problem is not the guy in the White House and a few misled followers, but the fact that America always puts itself first – as it should, as every other nation should and as we should. For centuries, the U.S. was isolationist until Japan’s misguided attack on Pearl Harbour forced it into the Second World War. It then found multilateralism advantageous as long as it could dominate multilateral institutions. Mr. Trump represents the large portion of Americans who realize that those days are gone. They are adjusting to the loss of American power by weakening ties with organizations such as the UN and the WTO, opting out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and undermining relationships such as NAFTA. Canada has to adjust to these new realities. The U.S. is moving back to its traditional preference for bilateralism and isolation and no amount of lecturing on the advantages of multilateralism will change the minds of those who think that way. We must do our best to keep the U.S. in the multilateral world – including with NAFTA – however, we have survived in a world of American bilateralism before, and we can do it again.

So let’s get the analysis, strategy and tactics right, and see how it all works out.

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