In The Media

'Be patient, don't prejudge,' Trump presidency 'positive' for Canada, says Bush-era U.S. ambassador

by Derek Abma (feat. Stephen Saideman)

The Hill Times
February 6, 2017

Relations between Canada and the United States are off to a “positive” start under new U.S. President Donald Trump, according to a former U.S. ambassador to Canada who served under George W. Bush.

“There’s certainly been some pluses,” David Wilkins said of the cross-border relationship so far. “President Trump gave the green light to the [Keystone] XL within days of taking office, as opposed to the train wreck that occurred during the Obama administration, where it was delayed, delayed, delayed for almost seven years before eventually rejected.

“So I think [the Keystone XL approval is] a very strong positive for Canada, for Canadian energy, and for the [Canada-U.S.] relationship.”

Mr. Wilkins was appointed U.S. ambassador to Canada in 2005 by Republican president Mr. Bush and served until Democratic president Barack Obama took over in 2009. Mr. Wilkins is now a lawyer with Nelson Mullins, with offices in Washington, D.C., and Greenville, S.C. 

He said he supported Lindsey Graham and then Jeb Bush for the Republican nomination in advance of last year’s presidential contest, but then voted for Mr. Trump in the election.

“I think the Canada-U.S. relationship is evolving,” Mr. Wilkins said. “I think, in the end, the Trump administration is going to be positive for Canada. Certainly, the heavy emphasis on jobs creation and spurring the economy; that bodes well for Canada.”

He acknowledged the “anxiety” and “concerns” people in Canada have over Mr. Trump’s protectionist tendencies and his demand to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that includes the Canada, the U.S., and Mexico.

But he said: “I would just ask everyone to be patient and don’t prejudge. We’ll see where all this goes.” 

Mr. Wilkins pointed out that Mr. Trump’s opponent in last year’s U.S. presidential election, Hillary Clinton, and Mr. Obama during his 2008 presidential campaign, had also promised to renegotiate NAFTA.

“And there’s no question that Mexico, I think, is drawing much more attention than Canada is on the trade issue,” Mr. Wilkins said. “So there might well be some discussions on, ‘How do we improve NAFTA and modernize NAFTA?’ But in the end I believe NAFTA will stand and [Canada and the U.S. will] continue to have a very, very strong trading relationship, the strongest trading relationship the world has ever known.”

Despite Mr. Wilkins’ bullish view on how the U.S. economy will perform under Mr. Trump, several technology giants such as Google and Apple have criticized Mr. Trump’s ban on travellers who are nationals of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, or Libya. These companies recruit from all over the world and now have scores of workers in the U.S. who are uncertain about their status.

“It’s painful to see the personal cost of this executive order on our colleagues,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai was quoted as saying by Bloomberg News, based on a memo. 

Mr. Trump’s travel ban reportedly affects 187 Google workers.

There are fears that many skilled trade tech workers will leave the U.S. due to frustrations over Mr. Trump’s immigration policy.

The government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) is known to have philosophical differences with the Trump administration on issues such trade, refugees, and the environment. However, Mr. Trudeau and members of this government have not publicly criticized Mr. Trump—during his election campaign, after his election, or since his inauguration.

However, shortly after Mr. Trump issued a temporary ban on travel to the U.S. from nationals of seven predominately Muslim countries, and a halt the U.S. refugee program, Mr. Trudeau said on Twitter on Jan 29: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength.”

The tweet made international headlines, and some saw it as a rebuke against Mr. Trump’s travel ban.

Media relations at the White House did not respond to an email from The Hill Times asking for comment on the tweet.

Mr. Wilkins said he does not know if officials at the White House took offence or even much notice of Mr. Trudeau’s posting. However, he said Mr. Trudeau’s position on accepting refugees has been well known for some time and it’s his prerogative to express such views.

“I think everyone expects Canada to have its own policies and the prime minister, obviously, is free to enunciate those policies that state the views of Canadians,” he said. “I certainly did not find anything offensive with those comments. … I think everyone respects the right of each country to have their own view.”

Sarah Goldfeder, a lobbyist with Earnscliffe Strategy Group and once a special assistant to former U.S. ambassadors David Jacobson and Bruce Heyman—two Obama appointees—questioned whether Mr. Trump and his team even noticed Mr. Trudeau’s tweet. “They have a whole lot going on,” she said of the White House lately.

She said there was enough harsh criticism from inside the U.S. directed toward Mr. Trump over his travel ban that Mr. Trudeau’s tweet wouldn’t have stood out much.

Ms. Goldfeder said Mr. Trudeau’s tweet simply “clarified something that whole world has known about Canada since his campaign for government here in Canada, that this is an inclusive society, that this is a value that Justin Trudeau holds personally and that the Liberal Party holds as a party objective, and I don’t think that’s a surprise to the Trump team.”

Brian Bow, a political science professor at Dalhousie University, agreed.

“Trudeau has already gone on record for a long time as taking a particular view of those issues,” he said. “Compared to some of the things he said in the past about what Canada believes and what his own personal views of what these things are, there wasn’t anything unexpected or extreme [in Trudeau’s tweet].”

He said Mr. Trump, or at least members of his staff, likely noticed Mr. Trudeau’s tweet, but “my guess is that they’re all pretty well aware of what position Trudeau’s taken on these issues already, and they would expect him to think that way and talk that way.”

Stephen Saideman, an international affairs professor at Carleton University, said Mr. Trudeau’s tweet appeared to be “a message” to Trump, “but it was a careful message. That way, it didn’t sour the relationship that much.”

Mr. Bow said Mr. Trump has shown a tendency to be sensitive to criticism and hold grudges. Yet, he said the U.S. president is set off by “things that are directly touching up on his ego,” said straightforward statements about policy, which are not personal, are unlikely to raise his ire.

“People who are advocating policies different from his don’t seem to provoke much of a reaction,” he said. “It’s more about directly disapproving of his choices, his motives, or his capabilities.”

Still, Mr. Bow said it will become more challenging for the Canadian government to maintain polite relations with Mr. Trump when he starts making decisions that directly affect this country, such as with NAFTA.

Mr. Saideman said Mr. Trump “is incredibly thin-skinned, so I think it would be very easy to have a situation where something goes awry, he takes offence,” leading to some U.S. policy that works against Canada. “Trump is hothead and is not making policy based on the experts. He’s making policy based on how he feels about things. It’s very dangerous times we live in.”

Ms. Goldfeder said the Trudeau government is doing good job of standing up for what it believes in while not doing anything to hurt relations with the new Trump administration.

“I think the Trudeau government is doing a good job at walking the middle line,” she said. “It’s hard situation to be in—a relatively new government dealing with a new administration, trying to figure out where they’re going to land on things.”

Mr. Wilkins gave the Trudeau government credit for not publicly playing favourites during the U.S. election.

“Prime Minister Trudeau played it exactly right in the campaign leading up to the election of Donald Trump in not being critical of candidate Donald Trump, and I think that bodes well for Canada,” Mr. Wilkins said.

First foreign visit

As of deadline last week, a meeting between Prime Minister Trudeau and President Trump had not taken place and no plans for such were made public. Relatedly, no plans had been announced for Mr. Trudeau to host Mr. Trump in Canada.

There is a tradition of U.S. presidents making their first foreign visits to Canada, though it’s not a hard-and-fast rule.

When George W. Bush made Mexico his first stop as president, there was some controversy in Canada. Mr. Obama did make Canada his first foreign trip as president, as did Bill Clinton and Ronald Regan. However, George Bush Sr., like his son, went to Mexico first.

The Sunday Times in United Kingdom reported earlier this month that Russia would be Mr. Trump’s first foreign visit as president, though Sean Spicer, a spokesman for Mr. Trump, denied that report.

Mr. Wilkins said too much symbolic importance is placed on where a president makes his first out-of-country trip, adding that it’s not always a sign of how good relations will be. He said despite Mr. Obama making Canada his first foreign visit and George W. Bush not, the latter’s presidency was better for Canada. He cited Mr. Bush’s role in solving the softwood-lumber trade dispute and opening up the U.S. border to Canadian beef after the 2003 mad cow crisis as examples of how “Canada could not have had a better friend than George W. Bush.”

Ms. Goldfeder she would be surprised if Canada is Mr. Trump’s first foreign visit, given the likelihood of major protests happening and placing a damper on the tone of discussions. She said Israel is a more likely destination, though she said this before news broke that Mr. Trump told Israel to stop building new settlements in occupied territories.

Still, she said there are good prospects for a positive relationship between Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Trump.

“Justin Trudeau is a charismatic guy who does well on one-to-one relationships, as is Donald Trump,” she said. “So I think the personal kind of connection there might be able to smooth over some of the policy decisions.”

Mr. Saideman agreed that Mr. Trudeau has the right temperament for dealing with someone like Mr. Trump.

“One of the advantages we have with Trudeau is he is charismatic person, he’s good at charming people, so I think he can finesse this to where he can take various stances on issues that Canadians care about without antagonizing Trump too much,” he said.

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