Reprinted from The Globe and Mail
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s meeting on Friday with U.S. state governors and Vice-President Mike Pence was part of an unprecedented campaign by Canadian leaders to persuade decision makers at all levels of the U.S. political system that trade with Canada helps both countries. This campaign, which took shape shortly after Donald Trump was elected President on a platform of tearing up the North American free-trade agreement, will need to continue for the duration of the Trump presidency – and probably beyond. Protectionist forces in the U.S., which helped Mr. Trump gain power, show no sign of dissipating.
In some respects, Canada’s outreach is not new. Federal and provincial politicians routinely communicate with their U.S. counterparts, and Canadian diplomats based in offices across the U.S. maintain contact with local, state and national leaders in order to advance Canada’s interests and positions. At moments of urgency in the past, these efforts have intensified – including after 9/11, when Ottawa’s primary goal was to keep a fearful U.S. government from restricting the flow of legitimate travellers and goods across the Canada-U.S. border.
But we have never seen outreach at the scale and intensity of the past few months. It has mobilized federal and provincial politicians, as well as sympathetic business interests on both sides of the border, all with the goal of communicating a single message: The Canada-U.S. economic relationship is mutually beneficial and supports millions of American jobs – so let’s not mess it up. Canadian leaders have become frequent visitors to Washington and many state capitals.
Whether these efforts will ultimately protect Canada from an unpredictable president remains to be seen, but given the potential costs of any significant disruption in Canada-U.S. economic relations, expanding and activating Canada’s network of influential allies – not just in Washington, but also at the state and local levels – only makes sense. This will be particularly important as NAFTA negotiations get under way later this year.
The need for Canada’s outreach campaign, however, will continue beyond these negotiations. Mr. Trump has demonstrated that he can make rash decisions. If allegations of his wrongdoing, or perceptions that he is not advancing his agenda, weaken support within his political base, he may be inclined to take dramatic steps to solidify that support – and trade protectionism appeals strongly to his base. Canada will still be at risk.
Ottawa may need to continue this campaign for a lot longer than many realize. Mr. Trump is a product of deeper forces in U.S. politics that are not going away. His protectionist appeals tapped into powerful feelings of alienation and anxiety. Bernie Sanders’s surprisingly effective campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination channelled many of the same sentiments.
As Canadian leaders continue their current outreach efforts, they should also be thinking about how to sustain this campaign in the coming years. Are there ways to improve the existing machinery of consultation and co-ordination among Canada’s advocates, friends and allies? Do we have the right number of people in the U.S., and in the right locations, performing the right tasks? In short, are we ready to deal with the “new normal” of a less trade-friendly America?