Our man in DC: Ambassador David MacNaughton on walking a tightrope with Trump

While interactions with the new administration have so far been positive ‘for the most part,’ Canada must now work to shape decisions on hot files before the White House commits to actions that could damage both countries, says diplomat David MacNaughton. 

By: /
January 31, 2017
McNaughton
Credit: Tishan Baldeo

Canada’s ambassador to the United States has warned that Ottawa can “no longer afford” to take its relationship with its southern neighbour for granted, calling for sustained engagement aimed at broadening the Trump administration’s knowledge of the “depth and breadth” of the Canada-U.S. relationship.

Speaking during a lunch event organized by the Empire Club of Canada, David MacNaughton was frank about the challenges Donald Trump’s presidency will present for Canada, but also stressed that the Trudeau government has been proactive since November’s election, engaging with Trump’s team “frequently and, for the most part, positively.”

While many observers were of the opinion that Trump’s rhetoric during the election campaign would be different from his actions once elected, MacNaughton said the Canadian government “could not assume that this was the case, and we didn’t.” 

The major goal of Trudeau’s ‘charm offensive’ during the transition period was to position Canada to protect its interests from Trump’s isolationist sentiments — with the prime minister minding his tone, sending trusted government officials to meet with top level Trump advisors, replacing former foreign minister Stéphane Dion with Chrystia Freeland, who has an extensive network in the U.S., and appearing with MacNaughton in a video message to the U.S. Congress emphasizing the strong economic ties between Canada and the U.S.    

Rather than “keeping [their] heads down,” as some advised, hoping the new president would abandon his commitment to revisit the North American Free Trade Agreement, MacNaughton and Trudeau’s team signaled publicly they would be prepared to discuss changes to NAFTA. “I have no problem keeping my head down,” MacNaughton said, “I just don’t believe in sticking it in the sand.

“Changes to NAFTA are coming, and changes to NAFTA are needed. The case we need to make to the U.S., and the case we have been making, and will continue to make, is that the changes we seek are not just for our benefit, but for the mutual benefit of both our countries.” 

This mutual benefit — and the degree to which, when it comes to jobs and trade, the fortunes of Canada and the U.S. are intertwined — is what MacNaughton intends to continue hammering home to senior officials in the Trump administration. As he explained: “You’ve got some very talented people around the president…one of the things, however, is that a lot of them have not spent any time in government. …Some of the ideas that they have come up with are not practical, and won’t work, and would cause damage, not just to us but to them.

“In fairness, I didn’t understand, until I went to Washington, the depth and the breadth of the relationship we have, and so that any move they make, even if it’s designed to get at someone else — I use the words ‘collateral damage.’ What we need to be able to do is…really build up the relationship so that they are actually thinking about that before they take an action. And we can help them with that.”

Of course, as MacNaughton acknowledged, the bilateral relationship goes well beyond trade. Aside from NAFTA, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Paris climate agreement and relations with China are just some areas where Trump’s positions are likely to clash with Trudeau’s worldview.

Barely a week into his presidency, Trump’s executive order barring Syrian refugees and citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. and suspending the entry of all refugees to the U.S. for 120 days put Canada’s prime minister in a sticky spot. While a tweet from Trudeau about Canada’s diversity being its strength was lauded abroad, at home he has been pressed by many for a more direct condemnation of Trump’s actions.

"Our challenge is that most of this relationship works so well, it’s hardly noticed by many of our friends south of the border."

This is a tightrope Trudeau will be forced to walk again and again over the next four years. Summing up the challenge ahead, MacNaughton said Canada must continue to pursue policies that “reflect the values and aspirations of Canadians, while respecting the democratically elected administration of the United States of America. And we need to work closely with the U.S. to facilitate the creation of good paying jobs on both sides of the border.”

“The reality is that in almost every aspect of our lives, we work cooperatively with our neighbour,” he continued. “Our challenge is that most of this relationship works so well, it’s hardly noticed, particularly by many of our friends south of the border.”

MacNaughton urged “Canadians from all walks of life, from business, labour, federal, provincial and municipal governments, to assist in helping highlight the very real and very tangible and very specific ways how Canada has helped, can help, and is helping to make America the great nation it has been and is now.”

For the moment, despite the work that lies ahead and the worries a Trump presidency presents for many Canadians, MacNaughton is remaining positive: “Generally speaking, I must say it’s been more than cordial. What they have reinforced in every discussion and meeting we have had is that they want to build a solid, positive relationship with Canada. And they don’t think that Canada is part of the problem.”