OTTAWA – Donald Trump’s stunning presidential election victory could overturn long-held assumptions and positions about Canada’s place in the world — from free trade and defence to the rules-based international order that the country has championed since the Second World War.
The Liberal government was among those scrambling Wednesday to get a handle on the ramifications of a U.S. president-elect who has repeatedly attacked Canada’s trade and foreign policy foundations, including the North American Free Trade Agreement and NATO.
Trump has also threatened a trade war with China and stronger action against North Korea and Iran, suggested a softer approach with Russia and voiced support for the use of torture.
On Wednesday, however, with the bile of the campaign finally receding, both Trump himself and Canada were trying to strike a more conciliatory tone.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to work with the new president-elect, while diplomatic officials signalled a willingness to sit down and talk about NAFTA.
If Trump wants to sit down and “improve” NAFTA, “then we’re ready to come to the table,” Canadian ambassador David MacNaughton told a conference call Wednesday.
One such improvement, MacNaughton hinted: free trade on softwood lumber, a long-standing irritant between the two countries.
Trump’s own victory speech early Wednesday offered some hope that he wouldn’t govern with the same belligerence that marked his campaign.
The U.S. would “always put America’s interests first, (but) we will deal fairly with everyone, all people and all other nations,” he said.
“We will seek common ground, not hostility; partnership, not conflict.”
MacNaughton said he has already opened channels to Trump’s team by sitting down with a number of the president-elect’s advisers in the lead-up to the election, including Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions.
At the end of the day, of course, nothing is certain where Trump is concerned — an unknown quantity that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s former foreign policy adviser touched on in a tweet Wednesday morning.
“Uncertainty about Trump’s trade and security policies will be a source of instability,” Roland Paris wrote, adding: “But clarification of those policies may be even worse.”
Officials said they planned to work overtime to demonstrate to Trump, his team and Congress the importance of free trade to North American economic prosperity. They would also enlist the help of companies and state governors to help convey that message.
Others weren’t so optimistic.
Fen Hampson, the head of the global security program at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont., said Canada should now focus its trade efforts on Europe and Asia.
“It’s time to double down on our own bilateral trade agreements not only with the European Union but with new markets in Asia,” Hampson said. “That will give us leverage with Washington. The more we can diversify, the more leverage we will have.”
And while there have been questions over whether Trump would even be able to re-open NAFTA, trade lawyer Lawrence Herman said Canada won’t be able to refuse if the president makes good on his threat. That could be bad news for auto manufacturers in Canada.
“As a practical matter, if the Americans insist on re-negotiation, I don’t see how we can refuse to sit down and talk,” Herman said.
“He won Michigan and Ohio and will do what’s needed to protect the auto workers in that part of the country. If that means reducing Canadian benefits, Trump won’t care.”
Canada is also expected to feel new pressures on the defence front.
Trump was a constant critic of NATO throughout the election campaign, saying the military alliance was full of “free riders.” He also backed off the promise, which Canada has long clung to, that the U.S. would always come to the defence of its allies. Instead, he warned that any intervention would be contingent on allies shouldering their fair share of the defence burden.
Trump did not mention Canada by name, but in recent years it has lagged most other allies in terms of military spending as a percentage of its economy. Liberals and Conservatives have instead pointed to Canada’s contributions to North American defence as well as various NATO missions and operations.
MacNaughton noted Canada has repeatedly stepped up to help the U.S. and other allies, mostly recently by agreeing to send 450 Canadian soldiers to lead a NATO battle group in Latvia. The U.S., United Kingdom and Germany are leading similar forces in Poland, Estonia and Lithuania, respectively.
“Some people, when they want to talk about defence, send their accountants,” MacNaughton said. “And we tend to send our soldiers out. We have stepped up to the plate in terms of defence at NATO.”
While that may be the case, defence analyst David Perry of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute expects a level of scrutiny and pressure to do more that hasn’t been seen before — or at least not while Barack Obama was in the White House. And not just with NATO, but also in terms of defending North America.
“Trump was crystal clear that about expecting more from America’s allies,” Perry said. “And I don’t think there’s much reason to think we won’t be included in that.”
— With files from Alex Panetta in Washington, D.C.