'Master of persuasion': Why Brian Mulroney's NAFTA playbook remains relevant 25 years later
Political scientist Fen Hampson has written a new book about the former PM and his global legacy
With the Trudeau government making a last-minute push to get NAFTA negotiators back to the table before an apparent U.S. deadline on Thursday, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland is heeding the advice of the former Canadian prime minister who crafted the trade agreement in the first place — one who adhered to the principle that "no deal is better than a bad deal."
Brian Mulroney has been advising the Liberals since the election of Donald Trump — a bit of political irony for the Conservative leader who had a strong partisan rivalry with the current prime minister's father.
Through the long lens of history, politicians are sometimes remembered more kindly than in their own time. Carleton University political scientist Fen Hampson believes that Mulroney falls into that category and should be lauded not only as the architect of NAFTA's precursor, the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, but for his "activist" international policy.
It's an argument he's laid out in his new book, Master of Persuasion: Brian Mulroney's Global Legacy.
"Mulroney has been advising the Trudeau government on how to deal with the renegotiation of NAFTA," said Hampson. "His own playbook on how to negotiate with the Americans is just as relevant today as it was 25 years ago."
Mulroney's other hallmark foreign policies include Canadian aid for Ethiopia during its famine crisis, sanctions against apartheid South Africa, investment in post-Communist eastern Europe, and tackling acid rain.
While he will forever be remembered for singing When Irish Eyes are Smiling with then President Ronald Reagan during the so-called Shamrock Summit in 1985, Hampson said it shouldn't obscure his achievement of warming relations with the United States after a frosty period under Pierre Trudeau.
"Political pundits have written tomes on the 'golden age' of foreign policy under Lester Pearson, but the real golden age was under Brian Mulroney," he said.
"Mulroney strategically positioned Canada on the world stage at a time of global upheaval — the Soviet Union was disintegrating, there was turbulence in the Middle East, South Africa was in transition, and the world confronted a succession of major humanitarian and environmental crises."
Hampson said we're in a similar period of global uncertainty today, and as this Trudeau government looks to "bring Canada back" to the global stage, there are important lessons from the Mulroney era.
What do you mean by 'master of persuasion'?
Mulroney understood that if you are a middle power, you have limited resources and leverage. The only way you're going to punch above your weight is with your wits, not necessarily your wallet and military muscle. Mulroney was the consummate negotiator. He understood that diplomacy is all about persuasion.
He built highly effective teams to get things done. He wanted the best people regardless of their partisan affiliation. For example, he hired Simon Reisman, a Liberal who had negotiated the Canada-U.S. auto pact for Lester Pearson, to negotiate free trade with the U.S. He appointed Stephen Lewis, who was New Democrat, to be UN ambassador and work with him on trying to end apartheid in South Africa.
What was his vision for a free trade agreement?
The Canadian economy in the 1980s was in deep recession. We were losing jobs and protectionist U.S. policies were stifling our ability to sell goods and services to our biggest market, the U.S. Mulroney knew that the only way to assure Canadian prosperity was to get a free trade agreement with the Americans that would open up the North American market.
But many Canadians were opposed, including the Liberal Party headed by John Turner. He and his supporters thought we would lose our national identity in the process. Free trade was a hard sell domestically. The 1988 election was hard fought over free trade but Mulroney won. The irony today is that we have a Liberal government that is working hard to save NAFTA, which has been critical to Canada's prosperity, and has enlisted Mulroney to help defend it.
Mulroney is remembered for the strong relationships he built with two U.S. presidents. What was his approach?
Mulroney made a point of reaching out to U.S. leaders and getting to know them first. Right after he became leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, he went to Washington to see Ronald Reagan. Relations with the U.S. under Pierre Trudeau's government had been terrible, and Mulroney knew that he had his work cut out for him. The two hit it off immediately even though Reagan was a lot older than Mulroney. He had an even closer relationship with George H.W. Bush, who succeeded Reagan.
But it was not just schmooze. Good personal relations meant Mulroney could get the Americans to the negotiating table. No easy thing to do. He was also an extremely tough and principled negotiator. Mulroney's motto was "no deal is better than a bad deal" — a motto the current government seems to have taken to heart as it renegotiates NAFTA.
Perhaps less well remembered is Mulroney's stand against apartheid in South Africa. What motivated him there?
As someone who came from a very humble background, an Irish working-class family in a small town in Quebec, Mulroney knew what it was like to be poor, a minority and disadvantaged. He believed to his core that apartheid was despicable and wrong. He was also greatly influenced as a young man by John Diefenbaker, who championed South Africa's expulsion from the Commonwealth for its apartheid policies.
Mulroney was the first G7 leader to call for sanctions against South Africa in the United Nations General Assembly. It was a bold move and the world was stunned. Mandela did not forget Canada's role in ending apartheid. Years later, he wrote to Mulroney and said it was inspiring to him and South Africans what Canada had done..
What about Mulroney's environmental legacy?
The topic du jour back then was acid rain; this was the major environmental issue of his day. Mulroney had backbenchers from northern Ontario who were aggressive on the issue and he supported them.
He was the first G7 leader to champion the environment at G7 summits. He played a key role in saving the global environmental summit in Rio in 1992 by getting his friend, President George H.W. Bush, to sign onto the global biodiversity treaty, which Canada championed. The fact that he was Canada's greenest prime minister was recognized by Canada's environmental leaders after he left office.
You call him a transformative leader in terms of foreign policy. What do you mean?
Many leaders are aspirational but they end up promising a whole lot more than they deliver. Mulroney delivered and got the job done on free trade with the United States and then Mexico. He secured a treaty in acid rain with the U.S. He got Canada to take its seat in the Organization of American States and La Francophonie, which only came into existence when Canada, along with Quebec and New Brunswick, decided to join.
He took the lead with Australia against apartheid in South Africa, among other key initiatives. And he was a trusted adviser to George H.W. Bush during the first Gulf War, urging the U.S. president to form a global coalition and secure UN Security Council support before taking military action.
What would you say to those who feel you are too much of a cheerleader for Mulroney?
What struck me is the judgment of others on his legacy: Elizabeth May called him Canada's greenest Prime Minister when it came to taking real action to protect the environment. Canadian scientist Harold Harvey, who discovered the cause of acid rain, commended Mulroney's government for addressing the seriousness of the problem by negotiating a treaty to curb emissions.
Nelson Mandela singled out Mulroney's role in fighting apartheid. And two American presidents and their secretaries of state called Mulroney not just a friend of the United States, but a trusted counsellor and global leader.
While Mulroney was in power, as well as later, he was dogged by scandal. How do you square that with your thesis?
It is undeniable that when Mulroney left office, he was deeply unpopular. A lot had to do with two of his key domestic initiatives: the GST and the failure of Meech Lake, which was deeply divisive. However, many now feel that had Meech Lake succeeded, there would not have been a second Quebec referendum. The GST is now widely accepted and played a critical role in balancing the federal government's books. Canadians are hard on their leaders when they leave office, but tend to have a different opinion years later when they look back. One thing is sure though, Mulroney did not govern to win a popularity contest. Instead, he tried to do what he thought was right for the country.
This Q&A as been condensed and edited for clarity.