The Odd Couple: How Trudeau can find common ground with Trump, even on trade

Canada’s idealist leader can play ball with his pragmatist counterpart on a number of issues, from NAFTA to renewable energy. The key is their shared interest in infrastructure.

By: , /
November 14, 2016
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in a town hall with high school students in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, November 3, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

Never in living memory have Canada and the U.S. harboured such an odd couple among leaders: not even John Diefenbaker and John F. Kennedy, or Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Richard Nixon, were so superficially mismatched. Yet the upcoming coupling of Justin Trudeau and Donald Trump may, paradoxically, portend a productive partnership. Here’s how. 

Shortly after the electoral triumph of Trump, Trudeau announced that he was open to renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). This was a shrewd move, as it shows willingness to engage in what could potentially have derailed the Trump-Trudeau relationship straight off. And Trudeau was careful, despite repeated attempts at baiting, to refrain from commenting on the election campaign while it was so acrimoniously unfolding south of the border.

On the campaign trail, “scrapping” NAFTA was a recurring theme, and appears to have resonated with those who voted for Trump. A piece by Gerald Seib in the Wall Street Journal carefully analyzes voting precinct by precinct and documents how Trump broke through the fabled Democratic “blue wall” in crucial states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. As Seib notes, “that it was breached in states where damage and job loss suffered in the manufacturing sector—by foreign competition and trade pressures, as well as other factors—is a more obvious voter concern than is immigration.” In short, analysis of voting behaviour suggests that trade, not xenophobia, was the animating issue for many Trump supporters.

"Canada was never Trump’s primary target within NAFTA."

Given this, Canadian commentators fear that Trump’s victory will be bad for Canada, given how central NAFTA has been to this country’s prosperity in the past quarter-century. But we are not nearly so pessimistic. Trump-The-Business-Man is pragmatic. He is also thin-skinned and narcissistic. But although prone to pettiness when his ego is pricked, he is, by the same token, prone to near-prostration when “romanced.” Consider how he warmed up instantly to Obama’s gracious welcome to the White House.

Canada was never Trump’s primary target within NAFTA. Let’s not forget that America’s auto industry has been thoroughly intertwined with Canada’s since the 1965 Canada-U.S. Auto Pact. It would be disastrous for U.S. industry to dismantle intricate supply chains that have been created over the decades. After all, blue-collar workers represent his core constituency, and throwing a spanner into the auto industry would only worsen, not improve, their plight. 

What’s more, Trump has signalled a willingness to pursue the Keystone XL pipeline, which was shelved by Obama. This clearly bodes well for the Canadian energy industry, an industry that Trudeau knows full well he must accommodate, especially as Alberta stagnates. Moreover, the proposed and highly contentious pipeline through British Columbia that would ship heavy, unrefined bitumen to Asia may well prove commercially unwise. Better to pipe to Houston which now has excess refining capacity. Trudeau-the-idealist could readily find common ground with Trump-the-pragmatist. 

In fact, a compromise with Trump on Keystone might even open the president-elect’s mind to compromise on killing U.S. participation in the Paris climate change agreement. Indeed, Trump in his sane moments actually supports clean water and clean air (his hotel rooms are sanitized to the hilt!). Furthermore, he might be open to the argument that investment in clean and renewable energy could prove commercially profitable. Technology seems to be moving in that direction. Advocacy of infrastructure to deter pollution and also insure against climate change may not, in fact, be a “Chinese plot” but rather an investment in long term growth and employment.

Which brings us to the biggest potential bargain that Trudeau, with his charm, might just pull off with The-Trump-Who-Loves-To-Be-Wooed. At the top of Trump’s acceptance speech was a grand promise to repair and replace America’s aging infrastructure. And at the top of Trudeau’s Canadian agenda is the same promise. What better bargain could they make than to cooperate? 

As many on both sides of the border (notably fellow OpenCanada contributor Stephen Blank) have long argued, North America is seriously under-invested in north-south transportation. Highways, rail lines and even affordable flight patterns in Canada run anachronistically east-west: the first two a legacy of Sir John A. Macdonald’s post-Confederation “National Policy.” 

What better time to seize on the opportunity to build north-south, at a moment when the incoming U.S. president has a cooperative Congress on board, as well as a near-record high number of Republican state governors?