The renegotiation of the North American free-trade agreement pushed U.S.-Canada relations to their worst point since the War of 1812, with the countries not even speaking with each other for months, former U.S. president Donald Trump’s top trade official writes in a new book.
No Trade is Free, a memoir by former U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer, portrays Canada as an intransigent negotiating partner that often completely refused to engage in substantive talks during the push to overhaul NAFTA. At one point, he says, he even admonished Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s top advisors over the “sneaky” tactics of Canadian officials.
Mr. Lighthizer, however, is complimentary of Canada’s point person on the file. He describes then-foreign minister Chrystia Freeland as “quite likely a future prime minister” with whom he shared a “quite friendly” rapport even as they clashed at the bargaining table.
The trilateral talks, which lasted a little more than a year in 2017 and 2018, were a fulfilment of Mr. Trump’s vow to roll back free-trade deals he accused of moving jobs out of the U.S. They culminated in a revised version of NAFTA branded the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, by Mr. Trump.
“Our government stood up for Canadians and our national economic interests during the NAFTA negotiations, and we secured a good deal for Canada,” Katherine Cuplinskas, a spokeswoman for Ms. Freeland, said in a statement in response to Mr. Lighthizer’s account of the discussions.
The former U.S. trade chief argues that Canada is hypocritical for purporting to embrace free trade but maintaining policies meant to keep out foreign competition, such as its “Soviet” supply-management system for dairy and eggs.
“Although outwardly supportive of free trade and internationalist in orientation, Canada is in reality a quite parochial – and at times quite protectionist – country,” Mr. Lighthizer writes.
For the first nine months of talks, Ottawa refused to make “a single meaningful concession” in bargaining, he says, and seemed to think “that the best strategy was not to negotiate with me or anyone in the administration at all.” Instead, the Trudeau government focused on lobbying free-trade-supporting members of Congress to put pressure on the White House to drop its demands.
The situation reached its nadir at the June, 2018, G7 summit in Charlevoix, Que. Mr. Trudeau offered an “anemic” NAFTA deal, which Mr. Trump rejected, Mr. Lighthizer recounts. Then, Mr. Trudeau criticized Mr. Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs at a press conference, Mr. Trump called him “very dishonest & weak” on Twitter in response and talks broke off completely.
“U.S.-Canadian relations arguably were at their lowest ebb since the failed American invasion of Upper Canada during the War of 1812,” Mr. Lighthizer writes. “We effectively were at an impasse on every major issue, and the United States and Canada weren’t speaking … NAFTA was hanging on by a thread.”
Things got rolling again when Mexican leaders, frightened by Mr. Trump’s threat to slap 25 per cent tariffs on the country’s auto exports, agreed to a bilateral NAFTA rewrite with the U.S. in late August of 2018. The two countries gave Canada one month to join the deal or risk getting kicked out of the continental trade block.
Ottawa waited nearly three weeks before coming back to the bargaining table, Mr. Lighthizer says. Up to the last minute, Canadian negotiators kept trying to reword the proposed agreement to avoid having to weaken supply management.
Finally, mere hours before his deadline, Mr. Lighthizer writes that he told Katie Telford and Gerald Butts, Mr. Trudeau’s two top staffers at the time, and Ms. Freeland: “No more sneaky shit.” Canada relented and the agreement was sealed. Mr. Lighthizer credits Mr. Butts with keeping talks on track during the final stretch.
Mr. Butts, who left the Prime Minister’s office the following year, said the gist of Mr. Lighthizer’s account is “fair enough,” though he didn’t remember the trade chief’s admonishment.
“It was a team sport on Canada’s side and everyone worked hard to play their roles well,” he wrote in an e-mail. “That could have appeared differently to Lighthizer at the time, but I will say he was a consummate professional in an extraordinarily difficult administration.”
Much of Mr. Lighthizer’s characterization of Canadian negotiating strategy is consistent with The Globe and Mail’s reporting at the time. The Trump administration was surprised by Canada’s resistance to its demands and repeatedly blamed Ottawa for holding up talks.
Mexico’s deal with Mr. Lighthizer was also a sore spot for Canadian officials, who felt undermined by the country going behind their backs. After the agreement was announced, Ms. Freeland privately upbraided Ildefonso Guajardo and Luis Videgaray, Mexico’s economy and foreign ministers, in a meeting on the rooftop terrace of the Canadian embassy in Washington, Canadian and Mexican officials told The Globe at the time.
USMCA ultimately preserved most of NAFTA but made some changes, including setting pay standards in the auto sector – a move designed to push jobs out of low-wage Mexico – more access to Canada’s dairy market for U.S. farmers and a “sunset” clause obliging the three countries to renegotiate the deal in 16 years.