Metro Morning

Former ambassador to U.S. warns Trudeau not to 'moralize' with Trump

Former ambassador to the U.S. Frank McKenna urged the prime minister to avoid the temptation of 'taking on' Trump and risking appearing sanctimonious.

Frank McKenna cautions Trudeau to resist urge to rock the boat by ‘taking on' the U.S. President

Former ambassador to the United States Frank McKenna told CBC Toronto that the stakes for Trudeau's meeting with Trump are 'extremely high.' (Chris Young/CP)

With just hours to go before the historic first meeting between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Donald Trump, former Canadian ambassador to the United States Frank McKenna weighed in on CBC Radio's Metro Morning about how he thinks the prime minister should handle the delicate interaction.

Matt Galloway: How much is at stake [in this meeting]?

Frank McKenna: The stakes are extremely high. We send over a third of our GDP down to the United States by way of trade.

There's a C.D. Howe report to be released Tuesday, and in advance it was revealed that almost half of our GDP growth could be destroyed [depending on our agreements with the United States]… this is damaging to the things we value enormously: healthcare, education, all the things that Canadians care about.

MG: How do you go about engaging on these issues with a man who has shown he isn't playing by anybody's rules?

FM: There's no doubt that [Trump's] been very bellicose in asserting his positions… but he has shown some inclination to be persuaded by facts. We've seen over the last several weeks a bit of a change in perspective on the one-China [policy], on settlements in Israel, even on NATO.

One gets the sense that when his very strong views are seasoned with more information he is capable of some change.

In the case of the Canada-U.S. relationship, the current relationship is in America's interest. It's very evenly balanced, it's the largest relationship in the world, and we really represent an asset to America's agenda.

MG: In Donald Trump's inaugural address, he talked about 'America first' — what does that mean for Canada?

FM: Carried to an extreme, what it means is that NAFTA will be renegotiated or even destroyed, and that a possible border adjustment tax could be introduced. That would be a very destructive move to Canada, and the rest of the world, and in my view to the United States.

But all of those things are on the table, and we have got to remember, he's got a political constituency that he catered to in the election who were opposed to trade agreements and want tax reform.

In order to get tax reform, he's got to find the money somewhere, and he's looking at a border adjustment tax to do it. He thinks that will kill two birds at the same time.

In my view, that's erroneous, but nevertheless it's very threatening to us and other trade partners around the world.

MG: If you were advising Trudeau, given everything we've said here, what would be the advice be on how you approach this issue?

FM: I think the government of Canada has conducted themselves very well so far, and I was very heartened that the leader of the opposition has indicated that the Conservatives support the prime minister in trying to manage this relationship.

I think that shows how high the stakes are and shows that Canadians are behind their prime minister during this trip. I think he needs to be assertive without being strident or moralistic.

I think he really needs to stress the facts — the facts are on our side. And I think he needs to avoid what Americans describe as 'speaking with the stern voice of the daughter of God' —  being sanctimonious or moralistic.

That would not go over well. I think the economic issues are so overwhelmingly important here that that has to represent the majority of his representations to the president.

MG: How difficult do you think that will be for the prime minister?

FM: No doubt he'll have pressure — he's handled it beautifully so far. I think the balance has been found, and that minister of foreign affairs Chrystia Freeland showed the way last week when she said, "We very much value the relationship, it's good for both of us, but if you proceed to put a tax on the border we will proceed to retaliate."

That kind of firmness and respect is what we need to do. He has to resist the temptation of a lot of us who are more impetuous in this country who might love the idea of him standing up and taking on the president.

That might give us a little bit of a moral outlet but it would be the wrong thing to do.

MG: There are a lot of people who say it wouldn't be the wrong thing to do. Why wouldn't [Trudeau] take this opportunity?

FM: One has to be careful in judging the affairs of other countries. They elect their president, we don't. We would be bitterly resentful if they were to interfere in a judgemental way with our practices in Canada, and vice-versa.

Secondly, that would tend to dwarf the economic arguments, and I think those have to be paramount because that's where Canada is most at risk.

And thirdly, the same people who might be protesting in the street [about that] might protest if we have to cut back on our health care or cut education as the result of the destruction of our economy.

I don't dismiss their concerns, they are legitimate, but our prime minister's got a higher calling here, and that's to protect the best interests in all of Canada, and he can't be carried away by the momentary politics.

Questions and answers have been condensed.

With files from Metro Morning