• Roland Paris

Canada Needs to Mobilize Its Allies in the United States

Here's part of a speech I gave at the University of Toronto shortly before the US election:

In recent months, the tenor of Canada-US relations has much improved. But the Obama Administration’s days are numbered and the current presidential campaign has exposed – and inflamed – powerful anti-trade sentiments in the American public. Historically those sentiments have resided mainly in the organized-labour wing of the Democratic Party, but today a solid majority of Republican voters believe that free trade has been bad for the US: 61% of them, up sharply from 39% in June 2015. This is, of course, partly a Trump phenomenon, but it’s much more than that. Bernie Sanders tapped into the very same feelings during his surprisingly popular bid for the Democratic nomination. We need to recognize both the breadth and the intensity of frustration and anger in the American public. The brand of populism it’s generating is more virulent than anything we have seen in generations. It is Jacksonian populism, but with a very mean edge, and it's unlikely to disappear anytime soon, because this backlash is, in part, a response to changes that have taken place in both the US and the global economies. Even if Hillary Clinton is elected, we should not expect her to be a “friend” to Canada. Yes, she will be friendly, but she will also aggressively promote American interests, and she will define those interests partly through the lens of the political pressures that she is facing at home. We have already seen her back away from the Trans Pacific Partnership and intensify her criticism of NAFTA. Although she has not echoed Donald Trump’s description of NAFTA as the “worst trade deal in history,” it is noteworthy that virtually no US leader today is willing to publicly defend NAFTA – including Clinton, whose husband signed the agreement in 1993. Canada is rarely a direct target of this anti-trade vitriol, nor do I expect NAFTA to be torn up, regardless of the outcome of the US election. But the risks to Canada are clear: Reliable access to the US market is lifeblood for our economy. It is, by far, our most important foreign policy interest. Our merchandise exports to the US alone represent one-fifth of the Canadian economy. And it’s not just a matter of exports: Our economies are already largely integrated. Much of what we trade consists of intermediate goods that move back and forth across the border in continent-wide supply chains, which also happens to make Canada an attractive location for investment. So, any serious threat to the NAFTA project, even if it doesn’t come close to abrogating the deal, could have serious repercussions for our economy. The challenge for the Trudeau government, therefore, is to persuade the next US Administration that this intimate economic relationship is mutually beneficial – and that it’s worth fighting for. We can’t do that simply by appealing to our long-standing friendship; that’s not going to cut it. We need a wide-ranging campaign to build awareness among decision-makers at all levels of the US political system that they have an interest in the success of this partnership. And to do that, we need to get down to the microgeographies of the trading relationship and mobilize our allies at the local, state, regional levels, too. Canada has done this kind of advocacy work for a long time, but we need to dramatically up our game. The stakes are too high for anything less. In doing so, Canada also needs to articulate a broader, positive vision of the “North American advantage” that has the potential to resonate in the US. Here, Prime Minister Trudeau is our single greatest asset... [He can] explain why Canada is the best partner the United States has ever had, how together we can build good jobs for the middle class, how North America can out-compete the rest of the world, and how we can do so while maintaining our collective security and a healthy environment.

Back to the present... and the aftermath of a surprising US election. The strategy for approaching the new Trump Administration will require more than an enhanced advocacy campaign, of course. Ottawa must be ready with its own array of carrots and sticks. Carrots are proposals for cooperation in areas of mutual interest. Canada has historically been the partner to put forward such proposals and they have sometimes paid off, laying the groundwork for even more cooperation. The Smart Border Declaration after 9/11 is a prime example.

Sticks, on the other hand, should be wielded only if our interests are directly threatened. Ottawa has employed targeted pressure with varying effectiveness in the past, such as in a recent dispute with the US over the labeling of meat imports, a dispute that ended with the US changing its rules. But there is always risk in such confrontations: the United States has more sticks - and bigger ones - than Canada does. Accomplishing Canadian goals while avoiding an all-out "stick fight" with the US is an enduring job requirement for our prime ministers.

This task will not get easier in the coming years. Donald Trump has already demonstrated how mercurial he can be. Now more than ever, Ottawa needs to mobilize American actors inside and outside government whose interests are aligned with those of Canada, while also encouraging Canadians in the public and private sectors to do the same with with their American colleagues and contacts. I remain cautiously optimistic that Canada and the US will maintain a productive relationship under the Trump Administration. The President-elect is a businessman and our two countries do an enormous amount of business together, supporting millions of jobs on both sides of the border. Nor does Canada match the profile of countries that Trump has criticized for "stealing" American jobs; if anything, the pattern of our manufacturing job losses are similar. But prudence demands preparation and readiness to use all the tools at Canada's disposal, including sophisticated advocacy methods that would see our American allies doing much of the talking.

Roland Paris
Graduate School of Public and International Affairs

University of Ottawa

120 University Private, Room 6053

Ottawa, Ontario, K1Y 3M5, Canada


© Roland Paris 2020