Michael Kergin is senior advisor to Bennett Jones LLP and former Canadian ambassador to the United States.
Like Mr. Smith in the classic movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Trudeau brought an outsider's perspective to the U.S. capital. He had three basic objectives.
First, to take the measure of President Donald Trump and establish a personal rapport ensuring that future phone calls might be returned. Second, to "educate" the President about the relevance of Canada in supporting the economic and security well-being of North America. And finally, to obtain a sense of where Mr. Trump intends to take the Canada-U.S. relationship.
Judging from the President's remarks and the press communique (largely drafted in the Prime Minister's Office), Justin Trudeau succeeded superlatively with all three objectives.
Now, the hard work begins.
What does Mr. Trump mean by "tweaking" trade with Canada? From the U.S. perspective, this could involve remedying a multitude of Canadian "sins": alleged softwood lumber subsidies; limited patent protection for U.S. intellectual property, principally pharmaceuticals; prohibitive tariffs against U.S. dairy and poultry products (Paul Ryan's Wisconsin is a large producer of cheese); restrictions on U.S. telecom investment in Canada; Buy Provincial requirements pertaining to procurement; NAFTA's dispute settlement panels bypassing the U.S. judiciary. And the list goes on and on.
Mr. Trump based his campaign on making the United States safe. The first 30 days have underscored how seriously he will honour this commitment. While the leaders' communique referred to extending customs preclearance to new Canadian sites, Canada's refugee policies may draw close attention from those responsible for policing our 8,000-kilometre border.
In light of these challenges, what do we need to do to protect our interests and to promote our objectives? Of essential importance will be the development of a co-ordinated, multilevel, private-public partnership to engage with four key constituencies in Mr. Trump's United States.
The first target, the executive branch, has been successfully addressed by the visit of the Prime Minister and his accompanying entourage. In his first comments about Canada, Mr. Trump lauded our trading partnership and refrained from commenting on our immigration policies. As U.S. cabinet secretaries are sworn in, Canadian ministers will soon meet with their counterparts.
The second point of entry to the U.S. system, the legislative branch, is equally vital as Congress represents a prime source of protectionist sentiment (Democrats and Republican tea partiers), not to speak of the fear of insufficiently secured borders. Canadian ministers, briefed by our ambassador, should devote a large part of their Washington sojourns to lobbying key committee chairs and their ranking members.
Third, state governments are often overlooked; yet, they are keenly interested in obtaining foreign investment and in enhancing their export markets. For example, Canada represents the largest export market for 35 states. State representatives need to be constantly reminded of this and, in many ways, the best messengers are our provincial governments with their closely knit cross-border ties. All politics are local and, in a Republican-dominated Washington, states' interests will play strongly.
Finally, by reaching out to U.S. allies and customers, Canada's private sector can energize powerful voices to push back against problematic regulatory initiatives. For example, lumber interests have worked with home builders and mayors seeking good quality products for low-income housing. Business associations, such as the Business Council of Canada and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, can co-operate closely with their counterparts in Washington and throughout the United States to push back against congressional protectionism.
The challenge of engaging the U.S. political system is daunting. Identifying the real deciders and how to influence them is perhaps the most complex aspect of the Canada-U.S. relationship. But obtaining access to the opinion formers and crafting messages appealing directly to U.S. self-interest will pay off, particularly when all levels of government working closely with the private sector are involved.