Trump wants a show with NAFTA, not a deal with Canada

We will therefore need to grow closer to other global powers, like the European Union -— but also countries that do not share our our most fundamental values, like China and perhaps even Russia.” Jen Gerson on the future of Canadian trade.

NAFTA negotiations aren't about trade. They're politics.

There have been recent clashes between President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over the North American Free Trade Agreement. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

A funny tweet popped up on my feed recently.

It was in response to a rambling speech delivered by U.S. President Donald Trump in South Carolina. After accusing our prime minister of high crimes in an unprecedented volley of barbs and insults after the G7 meeting in Quebec, Trump said: 

"Canada, you know, Canada? Nice guy, nice guy, prime minister Justin. I say, 'Justin, what's your problem, Justin?' So Canada. Oh Canada. I love their national anthem, O Canada. I like ours better, however."

Stephanie Carvin, an assistant professor at Carleton University and former national security advisor tweeted, "How are we supposed to negotiate with this. No really."

I can claim no expertise on how to conduct international trade negotiations, but I am begrudgingly coming to the realization that we simply can't — negotiate, that is.

The NAFTA negotiations aren't about trade: they're politics.

What it's all about

We in Canada have spent the last year fretting over sunset clauses, points of origin for car parts, and retaliatory tariffs. 

Perhaps it's time to consider the possibility that none of this drama is actually about NAFTA, that it's never been about NAFTA. Likewise, it's not about the border wall, either, or the Mexican drug dealers or the travelling Muslims, MS-13, or the migrant kids now holed up in converted Walmart, some separated forever from their families.

America has legitimate concerns on all these files: crime, illegal immigration, global trade. But all mass movements require common enemies and outrages by which to galvanize their supporters.

That's what is so frustrating about President Trump. It's not that he lies so promiscuously. It's that, like the best liars, he knows to spike his outrages with a touch of truth.

Our supply management system does make it difficult for U.S. egg and dairy producers to sell here, writes Jen Gerson. (Jason Reed /Reuters)

The Americans do have some fair complaints about NAFTA. For example, our supply management system does make it difficult for U.S. egg and dairy producers to sell here — to the detriment of both our countries. But Donald Trump isn't the guy who is pointing out America's problems because he is trying to fix them. 

Donald Trump is the guy trying to exploit those problems.

Wanting a show

Trump doesn't want a deal on NAFTA. He wants a show. 

If he can't win some spectacular concession in one fell swoop, fine. Let the negotiation drag on indefinitely. One grievance after another dropped on Twitter before the audience sobers. 

Canada isn't negotiating a trade deal with an old ally in good faith. We're just becoming one of a rotating cast of villains, paraded about in ritual garb to the jeers of Trump supporters in a grim political kabuki theatre. 

The U.S. is now fighting several trade wars simultaneously, "with so few resources. It really doesn't have enough people or bench strength to continue the NAFTA negotiations," Laura Dawson, director of the Canada Institute at the Wilson Center, based in Washington D.C., said to me in an interview.

For all his bombast and tweeting, Trump's administration hasn't even adequately staffed key senior positions and departments vital to moving negotiations along expeditiously, Dawson noted.

This isn't how a president who is trying to hammer out a solid deal for his people would behave.

"I think his priorities and interests would really have to shift away from using NAFTA as a political instrument," she said.

"As long as the political spotlight stays on the deal, it will be increasingly more difficult to complete the negotiation."

Pan-partisan support

In the hours after Trump's aides launched a bevy of TV attacks on Trudeau earlier this month, politicians of all stripes largely got behind the prime minister. There was heartening pan-partisan support for what was obviously an insupportable and mean-spirited attack by our biggest trading partner and staunchest ally. 

Predictably, this solidarity is now starting to crumble. 

"Justin Trudeau should have known that anti-Canadian tariffs were a real possibility, so why didn't he prepare a plan to protect Canadian jobs?" asked federal Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer on Twitter last week

As if anyone could possibly plan for Donald Trump.

What plan do the Conservatives possess, precisely? How are they going to more ably manage a showman? Will they offer total capitulation in the face of aggressive tariffs on aluminum and steel — or will they win Trump over by sheer dint of Scheer's superior charisma? 

In case one suspected the Liberals of behaving any better, peek at this tweet from Gerald Butts, the prime minister's principal secretary. 

"If the Conservatives were still in power, the Government of Canada would have folded like a cheap tent to Trump by now. Remember this next year."

Justin Trudeau, right, chats to his chief advisor Gerald Butts after taking part in the the Liberal leadership debate in 2013. Butts is now the prime minister's principal secretary. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

If our political class wishes to come across as any more immature or self-defeating, they're going to have to quit Twitter altogether in favour of Snapchat. That's where all the cool kids are making their terrible life decisions nowadays. While the parties might gain some small uptick in domestic support with these antics, this kind of internal division only serves Trump's ends.

Canada is in a difficult spot. There is no obvious strategy for navigating a successful or mutually beneficial deal with a country 10 times our size in these circumstances. While it may be fair to criticize Trudeau on any number of petty points on how he's handled NAFTA negotiations so far, neither the Conservatives nor the NDP nor the Greens can credibly claim to possess the secret to unravelling this mess. 

What with Trump, Putin, Brexit, the populist governments in Italy, Austria and Mexico, and new trade sanctions on both sides of the Atlantic the only thing that seems obvious now is that the old order by which we once guided ourselves is shifting.

Alienating allies, imperilling economies

That the U.S. could elect a president happy to alienate every western ally, a president who would unthinkingly imperil our economy for his own domestic purposes should profoundly unsettle everyone in government, and everyone who aspires to be there. 

Trump may prove to be a temporary fixture of the American republic, but the people who elected him are not. The impulses that pushed him to power are not slackening. The fact that this is happening now means that it can happen again.

Even if the U.S. goes on to elect a more conventional president in two years, we can no longer take our neighbour's benevolence for granted.

We will therefore need to grow closer to other global powers, like the European Union — but also countries that do not share our most fundamental values, like China and perhaps even Russia.

Yet, there is a limit to what government can do to accelerate this trend, or ameliorate its drawbacks. 

Canada can certainly make itself more attractive to domestic and foreign environment. Trade is governed by treaties and geopolitics, but it is, ultimately, a private endeavour by companies that choose to invest capital here — or not. No government can simply undo generations of economic dependence on the nearby U.S. market. No government makes the economy. 

Diplomatic chutzpah

In 2014, then-prime minister Stephen Harper reportedly told Russian leader Vladimir Putin to "get out of Ukraine" at a private retreat. It was a rare show of diplomatic chutzpah for a Canadian prime minister.

Is that the kind of risk that a prime minister could afford to take today? Is a world in which Canada no longer feels emboldened to make even these symbolic shows of force a better one than we had before?

None of this foreshadows a happy planet. The west, and the liberal values to which it strives — and so often fails — to uphold is not well served by a poisoned America, coiling in upon itself.

Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create. Have an idea? Email us at calgarytheroadahead@cbc.ca.

—  More stories from the series: —

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Jen Gerson

Jen Gerson is a freelance journalist based in Calgary.