Justin Trudeau’s mission to save NAFTA

On his trip to Washington, the PM will keep trying to befriend the volatile Trump, but the options to salvage the deal are narrowing


Monochrome black, a convoy of cars delivered Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, just in time, from tarmac to hotel. Two motorcycle police blared sirens to part the traffic, and at least for a moment, Washington pushed aside.

In what the minister of foreign affairs has called the most turbulent time in international relations since the end of the Second World War, Trudeau will meet with President Donald Trump to attempt to save NAFTA.

Negotiations have split into two types of demands: one hoping to modernize the agreement, but the second trying to rewind the deal to protectionist times. Trudeau hopes to better befriend Trump to ward off the latter. Sources say Canada is also trying to ally with state governors and may try to delay the deal, or evoke a little-talked-about ultimatum. America has the most demands, Mexico, the most to lose, but it’s Canada that holds the most potential to keep trade free across the continent.

“The strategy for Canada is to say, ‘Absolutely, sure, we’ll talk about all of your irritants,’ ” says Maxwell Cameron, a political scientist and author who interviewed dozens of negotiators about sealing the NAFTA deal, “but these concessions have to be matched.” Trump has claimed he wants to kill the deal, and Canada must gamble with judging the presidential poker face. As Cameron says, “I’d rather read tea leaves or roll dice than read the mind of Donald Trump.”

The bond with Trump is especially important because the Americans may be short-staffed at lower levels. One source in Washington close to the negotiations says the United States Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, hasn’t filled all his delegate roles. Working groups would otherwise resolve issues themselves, then call in the chief negotiators if needed, then ministers, and the heads of state only in rare cases. But the source says, “There’s just not enough folks in there. Nitty gritty details are being kicked up the ladder.”

READ MORE: How Canada hopes to one-up the White House on NAFTA

Brian Mulroney, George Bush and Carlos Salinas de Gortari became a trio essential to passing the agreement in the first place, but Trudeau needs to balance his Trump friendship with getting close to state governors. Trudeau went to Rhode Island in July to deliver a keynote speech at a meeting with 35 governors. (Canadian delegates have also reportedly met with all levels of governments including mayors and made hundreds of contacts across the U.S.) Yet, Trudeau’s speech was seen as side-stepping the president, so he shortly after met with Vice-President Mike Pence.

“Do no harm,” pleaded 314 American chambers of commerce in a letter to Trump sent Tuesday. “There are poison pill proposals still on the table that could doom the entire deal,” said Thomas Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in a statement. He specifically addressed America’s demand for change in rules around governments procurement of contracts. “This is a bad idea,” he said, “and by the way, no one’s asking for it!”

Some demands ask for NAFTA to modernize—by freeing up e-commerce and digitalizing border processing—but Americans also want to scrap dispute resolution, which Canada has seen as critical. As one source says, “You take that out, in a way you take the guts out of NAFTA.”

Americans could completely gut the deal with a proposed sunset clause, which would make NAFTA expire in five years—a disaster for, say, tomato farmers, who couldn’t plan how much seed to buy for the future. In response, Canada could use an ultimatum, as it currently guarantees Americans access to oil in case of emergency, thanks to a chapter that has seemed symbolic but never tested.

A stronger tactic is for Canada to delay the proceedings. If Trump wants to keep any portion of NAFTA, he’ll want to reach a deal before the midterm congressional elections, which risk bringing in new members to undermine his work so far. The longer Canada waits leading up to these elections, the more leverage it could have.

Mexicans tactically delayed meetings in the 1990s. “They would go into a lengthy, lengthy technical report about Mexican investment performance requirements,” explains Cameron. “They had Canadians and Americans scratching their heads trying to find out how Mexican legislation worked … Mexicans were just sort of playing them and distracting them. We caught on after a while.”

Delay is risky, for if Trump honestly wants to kill the deal as he suggests, then putting off the process would only waste time and money. However, Trudeau did employ this strategy once so far in Washington; the evening he arrived, during a talk at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit, interviewer Pattie Sellers paused the discussion to note Trudeau’s polka-dotted socks. “Sometimes they distract people,” he joked. “I’ve already used up [he checked his watch] five seconds of talking about Donald Trump.”



Justin Trudeau’s mission to save NAFTA

  1. is everyone stupid… free trade is not for our benefit, it is for the multinational companies so they can move your job to a poorer country and replace your job with someone for $2.00 hour like in the auto manufacturing, electronic (remember RCA TVs) furniture and even service companies like call center … The communist politicians whom are in bed with their rich friends will even tell us that by increasing the foreign countries economy, workers wages in that other country, they will be able to afford our products and we will sell more… Do you not realize that is just like they have a bridge for sale…it’s a great deal…. The problem is, the workers now in Mexico whom have your job, might now be able to buy a few grams of Canadian salmon as a treat, but now we can not afford it… The third world view of crooked, con artist politicians….unfortunately is the same here in Canada as it is all over the world…as people that really care – like Mother Teresa don’t ever run for politics…..only very screwed up narcissists and sociopaths. ITS A HUGE CON and you are stupid to believe something so ridiculous…. Free labour, free much bigger profits for the corporations, free kickbacks to the politicians…. that is what is all about… Remember the Clintons should have been charged with Fraud for their Whitewater real estate con, they were bankrupt, now they are almost billionaires with hundreds of millions in payola in their foundation….not charity,,,,, their pockets…. just like Trudeau took a million into his foundation the night before he got the banking licence for a chinese businessman whom had been trying for years and years…… HE took a bribe…. ALL OF THEM are crooks

    • Oh stop whining and get a grip.

    • Actually no one cares is right. After NAFTA many reasonably paying jobs in the manufacturing industry went south. Canadians were left with a future of part time jobs at Timmies / Walmart. Big money kept making bigger money and the rest of us Canadians went into debt to live. Middle class Canadians have more personal debt than ever before and the top 1% have more money than ever before.

      • Yeah, damn that Bill Gates eh>

      • Lack of jobs is somewhat concealed by the construction boom…funded by debt spending. Also outsourcing things previously done at home, such as takeout food, nail salons, landscaping. The economy is running on fumes, multiplier can’t work if there’s nothing to multiply.

  2. So Harper up to his usual back stabbing tricks. Goes to Washington to ride Trudeau coattails. Takes credit if trip a success; avoids blame if a failure.

    • And vacuous statement gets him a spot on the National?

  3. NAFTA is in no danger.