Skip to main content
opinion

Initially, Donald Trump was going to abrogate the North American free-trade agreement. Throw it into the trash can. His knee-jerk harangues about every trade deal being a disaster spread fear and trepidation north of the border.

But Canadians can stop the fretting. The deal is safe. Mr. Trump's termination plan has become a middling modernization scheme. The Washington wish list for NAFTA changes, published Monday, is hardly radical. Throw out the dispute-resolution system? Existing panels haven't always worked well. Come up with a better method.

Dairy trade? There is no Washington ultimatum, as feared, to do away with our supply-management system. Elsewhere, there are some nettlesome American proposals but, as in any negotiation, there will be compromises on each side. Win a few, lose a few.

What happened on this file is that Ottawa scored at the bargaining table before the bargaining even began. Even some of Justin Trudeau's harshest conservative critics accord him points for his management of the Trump file. To dim the fire of the U.S. President's ire, he combined personal charm with evidence-based argumentation.

For subscribers: Trudeau urged to lay out Canada's NAFTA objectives

Explainer: What the U.S. wants from NAFTA talks

His philosophy runs directly counter to Mr. Trump's populist nationalism. The Trudeau vision is tantamount to a declaration of interdependence. Multiculturalism, multilateralism, environmentalism, open immigration, open trade and goodwill to all, including Omar Khadr.

On all this, he need hope that Mr. Trump keeps his eyes wide shut so as not to have a change of mind. He need hope that he doesn't fixate on such things as The Wall Street Journal article by Conservative MP Peter Kent. Entitled A Terrorist's Big Payday, Courtesy of Trudeau, it was a one-sided attack – conveniently leaving out considerations such as the Charter, the rule of law and a half-dozen other salient points – that had Fox News frothing at the mouth at the Canadian Prime Minister.

Bear in mind, however, that the Trudeau bilateral strategy is multipronged, spreading beyond the White House to Congress and to the state-government level, where his interdependence pitch is striking a chord.

Last week, Mr. Trudeau scored a coup by becoming the first foreign head of government to be invited to address the U.S. National Governors Association. In Rhode Island, many governors lined up with him versus the White House on trade, the environment and global outreach. Washington State's Governor, Jay Inslee, put it bluntly, saying the governors were compensating for the "giant sucking sound of ignorance" at the federal level. Pressure from the governors has been a factor and will continue to be a factor in preventing the Trump administration from going overboard in its NAFTA demands.

In helping him succeed in the United States and elsewhere on the foreign stage, observers also credit Mr. Trudeau's personal charm and charisma. But it is more than that. It has much to do with the spirit of goodwill he brings to bear. I was a correspondent in Washington when Pierre Trudeau was prime minister, and while his intellect was admired, he was vexatious, and lacking in his son's optimism and popularity. Brian Mulroney succeeded with the White House but, unlike Justin Trudeau, had the advantage of dealing with like-minded Republican presidents.

The Trudeau outreach and goodwill-guy approach – such a contrast to the extreme partisanship of Stephen Harper – appears to have been adopted by French President Emmanuel Macron. He may overtake the Canadian Prime Minister as the international media darling and Trump favourite. The French leader invited the U.S. President to Bastille Day and, despite their egregious policy differences, they got along swimmingly. Mr. Trump called France the United States' first and oldest ally and said the two countries were together now, "perhaps more so than ever."

What claptrap. The French people can't stand Mr. Trump nor, for that matter, can the large majority of Canadians.

The game of smoke and mirrors will play out. Mr. Trump's views are not entrenched. They can swing wildly. Things such as the Khadr story could change his mind on Mr. Trudeau and bilateral issues.

But the Trump brand is losing badly in public opinion in his own country and abroad. The new zeitgeist is with the Macrons and the Trudeaus.

Canada’s ambassador to the U.S. says there are no surprises in Donald Trump’s list of objectives for upcoming NAFTA negotiations. In Edmonton Tuesday, David MacNaughton said Canada differs from the U.S. position on many issues.

The Canadian Press