WASHINGTON – Diplomatic briefing notes show Canadian officials wrestled with the same problem that consumed so many of the world’s political observers this year: making sense of the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump.
Diplomats monitoring the U.S. election regularly sent notes back to Ottawa – including one on May 25 that described the particular challenge of untangling the candidate’s contradictions and separating fact from fiction.
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It listed the Republican candidate talking about crushing ISIS, but avoiding foreign entanglements; ripping up the Iranian nuclear deal, but enforcing its terms; being a neutral arbiter between Israelis and Palestinians, but backing new Israeli settlement construction.
“Analysts have described his foreign policy as contradictory, often uninformed and unpredictable,” said the memo from the Washington embassy, one of several obtained by through the Access to Information Act.
“Mr. Trump, himself, has stated he thinks the United States needs to be more unpredictable.”
Things should become clearer soon.
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The tea-leaf-reading, the ceaseless sifting of statements from the stump, will make way for clarity about how this most unconventional president-elect in, possibly, the history of the United States, might actually govern.
The answer is of particular importance to Canada, which sells three-quarters of its exports to the U.S., the proverbial elephant whose every twitch, in the inimitable image invoked by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s father, shakes the neighbour.
There’s a fair bit of optimism from people who watch Canada-U.S. relations closely.
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In notes back home, Canadian diplomats noted a pattern in Trump’s rhetoric. Yes, he threatened to scrap NAFTA. No, it wasn’t very clear what he wanted in a renegotiation, or how he viewed the original, separate Canada-U.S. trade deal from 1987.
That’s because he rarely mentioned Canada. He didn’t complain about it, much less threaten it. He spoke in every stump speech about building a wall with the southern neighbour – yet, when asked about a northern wall, he scoffed at the idea.
Diplomats noted in their May 25 memo: “China and Mexico have borne the brunt of Trump’s populist campaign rhetoric.”
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So what does Trump want from Canada? On one hand, he says he’d approve the Keystone XL pipeline. On the other, he’s threatened to scrap NAFTA and believes other countries’ tax policies are designed to penalize U.S. businesses.
Canada is ready to talk.
A former aide to Justin Trudeau is hopeful. For instance, on NAFTA, Roland Paris says there are ways to improve it – such as changing out-of-date rules on professional visas, which complicate life for companies that send workers to offices across the border.
“I think it’ll be fine,” said Paris, a University of Ottawa professor and former foreign-affairs adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office. “I think there’s real potential for a positive and business-like relationship … (Trump) is a businessman and our countries do an enormous amount of business together.”
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In their first chat, the leaders invited each other to visit. Canada’s ambassador to the U.S. said people are floating ideas about a first meeting in Canada, in Washington – or maybe in a non-traditional summit spot, like at the border.
“There’s no decision that’s been taken yet,” David MacNaughton said in an interview.
He had a whirlwind first year as ambassador.
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In his first few weeks, he presented his credentials to President Barack Obama; accompanied Trudeau on his so-called ‘bromance’ trip to the White House; and worked on agreements related to climate change and faster-flowing border traffic.
Yet perennial irritants persist.
There’s no solution in sight to the softwood lumber dispute, which appears headed toward another years-long round of litigation as it has in the past. Expect Buy American provisions in Trump’s proposed $1 trillion infrastructure plan – which could freeze out foreign companies.
When this happened in 2009, it took the Canadian government months to negotiate a partial exemption. It could be a tough sell this time: protectionist sentiment has grown in the U.S., and Trump has indicated he wants some American-only rules in the bill.
There’s one, final, challenge that is new. That’s Trump’s unpopularity in Canada. Polls suggest people there favoured Hillary Clinton, with a few dozen percentage points to spare.
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It’s something David Wilkins has experienced first-hand.
He was George W. Bush’s ambassador to Canada. He saw a Liberal government base a political campaign on bashing Bush. North-of-the-border antipathy caused Canadian politicians to avoid co-operating on issues where they otherwise might have – like the U.S. missile shield.
Wilkins urged Canadians to give the new guy a chance.
“Try not to jump to conclusions. Not to prejudge. Give our president an opportunity to have his people in place and to effect his policy. Then pass judgment,” said Wilkins, who initially supported other Republican candidates.
“I believe Donald Trump will be good for Canada.”
He said Trump’s business-friendly, tax-cutting, road-building agenda would create growth: “When our economy does well, generally speaking, the Canadian economy benefits.”