Many Canadians greeted the news of Donald J. Trump’s victory as the next president of the United States with disbelief followed by trepidation — they wondered what it meant for them, and what the next four years would bring. Three American experts who were in Ottawa last week for the Canadian-American Business Council’s annual dinner, say it’s still a wait and see situation, but there may be some silver linings for Canadians — even Canadian exporters.
“The thing about the president elect is that he sees himself as a deal maker,” said Washington insider Maryscott Greenwood, a principal in public policy at Dentons’ Washington, DC office. “He views transactions as potential deals. The Canada-U.S. collaboration has been so good for both economies. We’ve got to do more business with each other, not less.”
Greenwood, who is a senior advisor to the Canadian-American Business Council (CABC), said that as troubling as Trump’s rhetoric was about NAFTA during the campaign, if he looks at everything Canada and the U.S. have at stake, he will realize it’s a good deal for the U.S.
“We will spend a fair amount of time, and we are, raising awareness about the Canada-US business relationship,” she said of the CABC, a non-profit, non-partisan, issues-oriented organization that was actually created in 1987 to address a backlash against NAFTA. Greenwood noted that the emcee for the dinner was TV host Ben Mulroney, son of Brian Mulroney, who spearheaded the creation of NAFTA with U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
“During the election campaign when Donald Trump talked about NAFTA, he was talking about the loss of U.S. jobs to Mexico,” she said. “He was using it as a placeholder for anxiety about globalization.”
She said Americans could see that he was using the term NAFTA as shorthand for globalization while, when Canadians think about NAFTA, they actually think about the agreement itself.
As heavy-hitters from both sides of the border filtered into the Château Laurier, she noted that the CABC dinner was the first chance since the election for Canada and the U.S. — with the help of former Democratic National Convention chair Howard Dean — to acknowledge that progressivism isn’t dead.
“I hope it’ll be a moment where we all think about how we work together and move forward,” she said.
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Asked what advice she has for Canadians who export to the U.S., she suggested “putting the pedal to the metal.”
“The U.S. is a great customer,” she stressed, “and the more we can do business together, the harder it will be to unwind [NAFTA].”
Howard Dean, who stressed the size of the U.S. economy, noting that it’s nearly a quarter of the world’s GDP, said Trump’s presence in the Oval Office “ups the risk and ups uncertainty,” but said he hopes “the U.S.-Canada relationship will continue to be very strong” and encouraged Canadians to keep investing and exporting.
A frequent visitor to Canada, Dean said he knows the country well and knows that Canadians are always self-conscious about the U.S. and how it ignores Canada. “My advice is for you to simply stay under the radar for the next four years,” he said.
Dean said he thinks the U.S. will insist on renegotiating NAFTA.
“My own belief is that, at the end of the day, we will renegotiate NAFTA,” Dean said. “I see no reason NAFTA should be any kind of an issue with Canada. It will hurt Americans if we put up tariffs. Most states have gained enormously.”
For his part, Rick Santorum, who also attended the event, said he fully expects the U.S. will end up negotiating bilateral agreements with Canada and Mexico after moving on from NAFTA.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Canada Gordon Giffin, meanwhile, thinks renegotiating NAFTA, if that’s the way Trump decides to go, isn’t such a bad thing.
“I don’t think NAFTA will be ripped up,” he said. “Most of us who are experienced with NAFTA — I was involved in the first term of Clinton — recognize it needs to be updated. If someone says NAFTA needs work, they’re right.”
Dean said he wonders if after a NAFTA renegotiation, Trump might settle the softwood lumber issue, but he summed up his overall thoughts on the new president thus: “There’s going to be turmoil for the next four years.”
Giffin said there have been active discussions on softwood lumber and that it’s conceivable it gets settled, but it’s “not a huge pervasive issue in the U.S. Ohio and Pennsylvania and Michigan and Wisconsin are not big softwood lumber states, so Trump wasn’t hearing about it every day.
Giffin’s advice to Canadian exporters was to be patient. “Our election happened a week ago and the new administration doesn’t take over till January.”
His other reassuring piece of advice was about Trump’s lack of ideology.
“He doesn’t appear to have any particular ideological perspective that drives a conclusion, which I find to be a positive,” he said. “Each issue can be analyzed on its own merits. You can’t say that about many political figures. They come up through a system. The president elect hasn’t come up through that system.”
All three agreed that the TPP is dead as far as the U.S. is concerned, with Giffin being the most sardonic. “TPP: What’s that?” he asked with a laugh. “Trump said it was a bad deal. He’s not against trade deals; he’s against bad trade deals. In my experience, bad trade deals are ones that were negotiated by someone else. Once it becomes your baby, it doesn’t look so bad. In 1993, Jean Chrétien ran a campaign in which he was very skeptical of NAFTA, then, he was elected and two side letters were drafted and suddenly it looked pretty good.”
Giffin also noted that Obama said he’d renegotiate NAFTA because it’s old policy.
“We’ve said for quite some time, that it needs to be revisited,” he said. “The agreement is old.”
There may be one other silver lining for Canada, Greenwood said.
“I think Keystone will get a green light,” she said. “[Senate] Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said yes, and the president campaigned on it. Whether commodity prices are at a level where it matters is another story.”