The situation was rife with potential conflict. In the throes of a U.S. election campaign, Canada was preparing to announce major retaliation against President Donald Trump’s administration for the levies it proposed last month against Canadian aluminum imports.
The countermeasures could have affected votes in battleground states, and the likelihood was that Mr. Trump would strike back, escalating tensions as he fought for his political livelihood and drawing Canada into election hostilities.
But unless Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland is out-and-out lying, the bully has backed off, having run away with its tail between its legs. Just a couple of hours before Ottawa’s retaliatory tariffs were to be imposed, Mr. Trump withdrew his aluminum levies, thus ending the dispute.
U.S. Trade Representative Bob Lighthizer tried to save face, suggesting it was not a retreat and instead warning that the tariffs would be reimposed if Canadian exports exceed quotas in the months ahead. He implied that Ottawa had agreed to the terms for quotas.
Ms. Freeland deemed that a load of rubbish. “We have not agreed to anything. We have not negotiated an agreement with the U.S. on quotas. What has happened today is that the United States has chosen to unilaterally lift its tariffs on Canadian aluminum exports to the United States.”
Amen to that was the word from even Republicans such as Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley. “I’m glad tariffs will not be reimposed on Canadian aluminum. It’s ridiculous to think that aluminum imports from our Canadian friends present a national security concern,” he said, a reference to the rationale Mr. Trump used to initially impose the aluminum and steel tariffs in 2018.
If Mr. Trump were to win the election, and if Canadian exports of aluminum did get extraordinarily high, the U.S. could well reimpose the tariffs. But the administration would then face, as Ms. Freeland indicated, the same type of retaliatory measures that have just prompted the White House to back down.
And Mr. Trump would confront the same widespread opposition to such tariffs from stakeholders that it encountered this time, including most major aluminum producers, trade unions, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Aluminum Association.
The reinstatement of the tariffs was announced only a month after the signing of the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, which was supposed to stabilize trade relations. But the protectionist President brought them back because he wanted to try and showcase himself as the great defender of the working class.
That he dropped them so quickly is an extraordinary win for Canada, said David MacNaughton, the former ambassador in Washington who tangled with the Americans for four years on trade disputes.
There’s no doubt that Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, played a key role in getting the President to back down, he said. Mr. Kushner has been a voice of reason in dealing with Ottawa on trade. “You have to be clever about your retaliation,” Mr. MacNaughton said, and Ottawa was aiming the tariffs at Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Mr. Kushner could see that they could have had electoral consequences.
Though Mr. Trump’s back-off was hardly front-page news in the U.S., the former envoy noted, it will still make it more difficult for him to go about boasting in the campaign of his great trade-policy prowess.
The brouhaha is another example of Mr. Trump being more bluster than bite, of his reversal of the old Teddy Roosevelt dictum of “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Mr. Trump threatened to do away with NAFTA altogether, but didn’t. He threatened to impose economy-destroying auto tariffs on Canada, but didn’t. He did go ahead with steel and aluminum tariffs in 2018, but lifted them the next year.
A Pew Research Centre poll released this week revealed the degree of disdain with which Mr. Trump is held by Canadians – at levels higher than any other president since polling began. Only 20 per cent of Canadians had confidence in Mr. Trump, whereas 83 per cent supported Barack Obama when he left office at the start of 2017. It is a stunning contrast.
Of the outcome of this latest imbroglio, Ms. Freeland declared that “common sense has prevailed.” That has not been at a premium with the Trump gang, which has been one of the most unruly and cantankerous administrations imaginable. But on the tariff issue and others, a lot of old-fashioned Canadian calm and good sense has come to the fore – and it has paid off.
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