PETER MCKENNA: Whither the three amigos?

A sharp departure from the normal Canada-U.S. diplomatic rules-of-the-game

Published on February 17, 2017

By any calculation of power - as Prime Minister Trudeau was undoubtedly briefed on before meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump this week - Canada comes out on the short end when compared to our superpower southern neighbour.

Put differently, the disparity in power resources between the two is blatantly obvious.

That explains why Canada has often sought to fashion a bilateral relationship with the United States that is predominantly rules-based. Over the years, that desire has manifested itself in the creation of bilateral institutions like the International Joint Commission (IJC) and the Canada-U.S. Inter-Parliamentary Group, hundreds of defence-related agreements such as NORAD, and the safety of a 1988 bilateral free trade deal (along with the trilateral NAFTA in 1994).

To further bolster our position, Canada has sought to constrain U.S. actions through multilateral forums like the United Nations, NATO and the World Trade Organization (WTO). By working closely with other like-minded countries, so the argument goes, Canada is better situated to moderate or tame aggressive U.S. behaviour and tendencies. 

Roughly translated, it means that Canada has opted regularly to seek strength in numbers. Recently, Canada was able to use the WTO to force the U.S. Congress to roll back its so-called Country of Origin Labelling (COOL) provisions, which were invoked essentially to restrict imports of Canadian meat products.

Canadian governments, then, do not need to be reminded of the fact that the United States has numerous ways of making life miserable for Canadians. Because we export roughly 77 per cent of everything that we make to the U.S. marketplace, the cost of placing most of our eggs in a single basket is an acute sense of economic dependence and trade vulnerability.

Many a times, Ottawa has been accidentally side-swiped by U.S. policy changes to its tax, trade and cultural policies. And, in many instances, Canada was successful in negotiating an exemption from these measures and thus re-establishing the semblance of a special relationship.

But with the dawn of the new Trump era, those days appear to be gone - or at least under serious threat. With Trump in the White House, and his warm embrace of a Fortress America, there will be no special favours or exemptions coming Canada’s way.  

It seems pretty obvious that Trump’s golden rule is putting “America First” (and its corollary, Buy American and Hire Americans). The problem with this for the Trudeau government is that it is a sharp departure from the normal Canada-U.S. diplomatic rules-of-the-game. It challenges the long-held notion that both countries share a number of common values and principles - such as an open and liberalized international trading system, an iron-clad transatlantic security link, respect for the rule of law, and a commitment to continental prosperity and collaboration.

As a result, it is clearly in Canada’s best interests to retain NAFTA in whatever form that it can. Perhaps it could be re-negotiated, updated and strengthened in discussions with Washington and Mexico City. To be sure, its rules-based system, and especially its dispute settlement mechanism, offers Canada some protection from a protectionist-minded Trump administration.

But if Washington decides to issue its notice to walk away from the NAFTA in 6 months, then Canada should not sell the store just to keep the U.S. in. It should look to salvage whatever is left of the NAFTA with the Mexicans and work with them to enhance it.

No matter what happens, Canada should seek to work in concert with its Mexican partner. This is definitely not the time to abandon our southern neighbour. We are stronger together and less susceptible to Trump’s divide-and-conquer approach.

It’s worth remembering that Canada and Mexico acting on their own will leave each of them vulnerable to a more powerful United States—particularly one willing to impose economic punishment. By joining forces with Mexico, we would strengthen our hand in any difficult NAFTA negotiations with the U.S. Indeed, sharing information and strategy, making sure that our trade interests are in sync and speaking with one firm voice will better enable us to keep the U.S. in check.

Keep in mind that there is one thing that a Trump White House does not want to do - that is, to send a message to the rest of the world that it can’t get along with its two closest neighbours. 

The two amigos aligned together, then, are stronger than two separate mice pitted against an elephant-like Trump White House. Working with the Mexicans can also reinforce that rules-based framework that is our best hope of protecting ourselves. In short, thoughtlessly jettisoning Mexico and a rules-based order is a recipe for disaster in an insular-looking Trump administration.



- Peter McKenna is professor and chair of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.