It’s welcome news that Justin Trudeau plans on pushing back against U.S. President Joe Biden’s protectionist proclivities. When the two meet along with the President of Mexico in a trilateral summit in Washington Thursday, tough talk is on the agenda.
It should be. Canada is getting shafted, particularly by the White House plan to give tax credits on U.S.-assembled electric vehicles. Ottawa has no choice but to protest.
But will tough talk cut it? Not according to trade specialists I’ve talked to. Peter Clark, who has spent a half-century as a Canadian trade negotiator and arbitrator, considers what the White House is doing to be “outrageous,” a threat to the viability of the Canadian auto industry. While Ottawa could go through customary channels of redress, such as taking the issue to dispute resolution panels, “that could take months, if not years.”
Instead what is needed to get the White House’s attention, he said, is retaliation.
Aye, aye to that, said David MacNaughton, who as former Washington ambassador helped negotiate the new NAFTA, including its auto provisions, which he said are now being abrogated.
In his view, there is little chance Mr. Biden will back down, given his political needs. “All they’re thinking about is the midterm elections.” That leaves Ottawa without much choice, he said, but to strike back hard.
“You’ve got to hit them over the head with a baseball bat.”
That means raising the prospect of surgical retaliatory strikes in politically sensitive regions where the Democrats cannot afford to lose votes.
This was effective, Mr. MacNaughton said, in dealing with with steel and aluminum tariffs and other threats from the Trump administration. He recalled confronting Republican Senator Ron Johnson from the dairy-dependent state of Wisconsin. “I can shut down your market with just three phone calls to premiers of our biggest provinces,” he told him.
Political retaliation is where things get dicey, however. Another former trade negotiator who worked U.S. files cautioned that responding to their transgressions with transgressions of your own has its downsides – a tit-for-tat hissing match, if not an extended trade war.
But there’s a greater concern. One of the last things Ottawa wants to do is help, even marginally, the electoral prospects of Donald Trump’s Republicans. A trade fight with the Democrats could affect some results in pivotal states.
The stakes in both the midterm elections and the next presidential one are enormous. Courtesy of Mr. Trump’s delusional insistence that the Biden victory was a fraud and Republican inclinations to believe it, the American democratic system is imperilled like rarely, if ever, before. If he returns to power it’s no exaggeration to say he could take it over a cliff.
He’s been working to put loyalists in key positions in many Republican-run states where they will have much influence over vote counts and how results are interpreted. His Republicans are well-positioned to win the midterm elections, their cause being helped by their gerrymandering of electoral districts and Mr. Biden’s troubled performance to date.
The upshot puts Ottawa in a Catch-22 dilemma in pressing its case against the Democrats. The satisfaction in this country over the Biden victory in last year’s election has been short-lived. Though he recently helped secure the release of the two Michaels – Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor – from incarceration in China, Mr. Biden has not been the bilateral partner Mr. Trudeau hoped. Pals diplomacy, the friendly rapport he has with Mr. Biden, has had no significant effect. Along with the electric-vehicle tax credit, Ottawa faces other Buy American threats contained in a mammoth trillion-dollar infrastructure bill that just became law.
That said, the interests of the Trudeau government and most Canadians are better served by the Democrats as opposed to the backwardism of the Trump Republicans. Whether it be on climate change, racism, multilateralism, immigration, wealth distribution, guns, respect for reality or the maintenance of democratic principles.
At the trilateral summit, Canada will have Mexico in its corner on the auto dispute. Some form of compromise may be found but even if a resolution is forthcoming, the incendiary political climate in the U.S. affords no alleviation of anxieties.
The events of Jan. 6 could be just a sampling, a dress rehearsal for convulsions to come. If the Democrats don’t succeed, if Mr. Trump is returned to power, the prospect of Putin-styled authoritarianism taking hold in the world’s once-greatest democracy is real. Issues such as bilateral auto trade will look decidedly marginal.
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