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Trump vs. Clinton on trade: Both are bad for Canada

Lawrence Herman, a former Canadian diplomat, practices international trade law and is a senior fellow of the C.D. Howe Institute in Toronto.

Canadians seem to have a warm and fuzzy feeling about the Democratic Party, aided by the obnoxious and vitriolic bombast of Donald Trump, disgracefully displayed during Monday night's U.S. presidential debate.

Canadians should shed these illusions. While our trade relations with the United States will be hugely toxic under a Trump presidency – he has no interest in building relationships with anyone – things won't be that much better under Hillary Clinton and the Democrats. That was made clear during Monday night's debate.

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Mr. Trump repeated what he's been saying for months about the North American free-trade agreement being an unmitigated disaster for the United States. There were no surprises here, his poisonous anti-trade rantings being common fare. Should he be elected, one of his first moves will be to demand renegotiation of the agreement.

But Ms. Clinton didn't give much comfort in her responses to Mr. Trump's tirade. While she avoided specifically addressing NAFTA, she repeated her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal, which, when considered in context, implies a frosty view of international trade agreements generally.

Evident during the presidential race has been growing public antipathy to trade agreements of any kind. The astute Ms. Clinton knows the way the political wind is blowing and, as we saw during the debate, won't say anything supportive lest it give her opponent an opening on these issues.

A report by the Pew Research Center last April found that Americans' opinions about trade deals were having rough going in both Democrat and Republican camps.

It's likely that U.S. public opinion has turned even more negative on trade across the political spectrum, stoked by Mr. Trump's repeated blusterings. This negative public mood is why the Canadian government has sent our ambassador and other representatives on a public relations mission across the United States to tout the benefits of free trade, especially free trade with Canada.

Coming back to the naively warm and fuzzy feelings Canadians have toward the Democrats, there are troubling storm clouds on the horizon.

The first casualty of a Democratic administration will be the TPP. As president, Ms. Clinton won't reverse her opposition to the deal. With a potentially anti-free-trade Democratic Senate, TPP ratification by the United States is fading, at least not without major changes to the agreement that will cause the entire TPP edifice to collapse.

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Second, while Ms. Clinton isn't overtly hostile to NAFTA, and won't insist on reopening it, given public sentiments, her administration will be forced to show toughness with Canada and Mexico on trade issues. That's just political reality. So we can expect another softwood lumber dispute to move ahead with a vengeance – driven by the U.S. industry seeking to regain a portion of Canada's $6-billion market share.

Third, other areas of bilateral tension won't be reduced by a Democratic administration. Canadians tend to forget that some of the most aggressive critics of Canada have been Democratic (and sometimes Republicans) from border states. Given the possibility of Democratic ascendency in the White House as well as the Senate and maybe the House of Representatives, we could face trade challenges on everything from supply management to financial assistance to Bombardier.

Fourth, these anti-trade sentiments could well spill over into the multilateral arena, which will suffer from the reduction in U.S. leadership in pursuing liberalization of global trade and open markets. What will happen in the World Trade Organization, for example, which occupies a critical place in Canada's trade policy? Will the United States retrench from being a leader in that organization or will internal American politics lead to a reduced commitment to WTO multilateralism?

So, while the post-debate commentary in our own media has been highly favourable to Ms. Clinton, Canadians should have no illusions about what might be in the offing if 2017 opens with a Democrat in the While House.

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