Donald Trump and America First: How Do We Manage?

2018 Howard Memorial Lecture University of Calgary

by Colin Robertson

It is an honour to deliver this lecture. The career and contribution to public life of Bill Howard is an inspiration. Part of the greatest generation who then created the post-war, rules-based international order, by all accounts General Howard was a larger than life personality. He cared deeply about our country, especially its defence and security. He understood the importance of the American relationship.

When I think about the U.S. relationship, I’m always reminded of this tale: 

On the sixth day God turned to Archangel Gabriel and said: "Today I am going to create a land called Canada, it will be a land of outstanding natural beauty. It shall have tall majestic mountains, sparkling lakes bountiful with pickerel and trout, forests full of elk and moose, oceans and rivers stocked with salmon and the plains a bread-basket for the world, I shall make the land rich in resources - oil, gas, uranium and hydropower so as to make the inhabitants prosper, Canadians shall be known as the most friendly people on the earth."

"But Lord," asked Gabriel, "don't you think you are being too generous to these Canadians?"

"Not really," replied God, "just wait and see the neighbours I am going to give them."

And there is one neighbour in particular who has dominated the news like no other president in recent memory.

Donald Trump is a maverick, an insurgent who operates by instinct. His ability to suss his opponents’ weakness and then to mock them as in “little Marco” or “lying Ted”: or “crooked Hillary” or to deride the “fake media“ is as successful as it is disconcerting to the norms of public debate.

But do not underestimate Donald Trump.

He went into the presidential campaign with a 1 percent probability of winning the Republican nomination. On the day of the election, he was still given odds of less than one in three of becoming president.

I think he won because Americans wanted change from a Washington that they felt no longer worked for them. For an insight into the soul of Trump America read J D Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.

Trump appealed to a feeling of loss of control. As he said in his inaugural address, “the forgotten men and women in America” are “forgotten no longer”. The wall would restore integrity to borders and keep out foreign goods that cost American jobs. The muslim ban would keep out migrants and terrorists.

Trump’s messaging – including his early hour tweets - continue to be simple, persuasive and appealing: ‘Make America Great Again…America First…Buy American…Hire American’.

As one journalist put it, Trump’s supporters took him seriously but not literally while the elite took him literally but not seriously. We have since learned to take him both literally and seriously.

Internationally, President Trump’s cavalier treatment of treaties, alliances, trade pacts, and the multilateral architecture is a radical departure from post-war American policies.

Instead of strengthening the rules-based global order, the Trump administration appears set on its dismemberment.

Previous U.S. administrations saw American internationalism not as an act of charity, but as reflecting American values and principles. As practiced by Presidents Roosevelt through Reagan and Obama, America used its weight to better the global condition, willing to give more than it received.

The global operating system is in a state of shock. That which his predecessors prized and carefully sustained matters little, if at all, to Donald Trump.

All of this affects Canada, more than most other nations because of our geographic propinquity, profound, people-to-people links, and our reliance on the United States as our primary ally and market.

While Canada must prepare for the worst, we must stay engaged with the many Americans who see the world, and America’s place in it, differently than Mr. Trump.

Ultimately, Trumpism is a test of how Americans see themselves and their place in the world.

For Canada, the Trump challenge means a U.S. strategy with three core objectives:

1. Keep the security alliance intact

The U.S. possesses by far the most powerful global military machine in all domains — land, sea, air, space and cyber. In a world of growing disarray, we are fortunate to ride first-class on a third-class fare and contribution.

The Trudeau government’s new defence policy will increase Canadian spending and improve procurement of new kit — fighter jets and warships. But we need to get it done.

We have visibly increased our NATO contribution through leadership of a brigade in Latvia. And for our own protection, we should consider fully integrating ballistic missile defence into NORAD. 

Creating a security perimeter that tracks the people and goods entering North America was the goal of the post-9/11 Smart Border Accord. Pre-clearance of people and goods is a vital element.

Thanks to the shepherding of Alberta Senator Doug Black, the legislation is in now place to enable Canadians traveling by air, rail and sea to enjoy expedited passage. But now Canada needs to follow-through with the Canada-U.S. entry-exit initiative. Americans need to know that we have their back and that we take seriously our shared security obligations. 

2. Secure our access to the U.S. market

America is still the biggest and most innovative market in the world. U.S. tax reform will change our global competitiveness. We need to re-examine our federal and provincial tax policy, as well as plan contingencies for operating in a non-NAFTA environment.

Energy used to be our trump card but U.S. growing energy self-sufficiency means our negotiating hand is weakened. We need to get our resources to tidewater. When you only have one market, it's the buyer that sets the price.

Governments, whether Conservative or Liberal, can’t seem to build pipelines to our coasts. It means we are a captive supplier to the U.S. and they know it. Only when we can access world markets will we get world prices.

3. Avoid anti-Americanism while advancing an internationalist foreign policy

Growing policy differences with the Trump administration on climate, migration and the utility of multilateralism are inevitable. Pushing back on Trump policies that affect Canada, including standing up for Canadians born in designated Muslim nations who encounter difficulties entering the U.S., requires skill. But it needs to be done.

The temptation for the gratuitous jab at Mr. Trump may gain short-term popular acclaim but it won’t serve our strategic goals. We are dealing with a president with a very thin skin. We need to remember and apply one of Brian Mulroney’s principles of Canada-U.S. relations: that we can disagree without being disagreeable.

Canada, in league with other middle and like-minded powers who value representative government, human rights, and freer trade, needs to again step up and reassert our interests in sustaining and preserving our rules-based system.

In a practical sense, this means working in tandem with our European and Pacific partners. It means finding niches — like providing a venue for talks on North Korea, or leading in rethinking peace operations. We can do more - hosting the Nuclear Security Summits initiated by President Barack Obama would be helpful.

We also need to diversify our markets.

Today’s announcement that we will join the Trans Pacific Partnership is excellent news. With the new Canada- Europe agreement we have two big alternate markets. Prime Minister Trudeau is off to India next month. Last month he met with the Chinese.

The only way for a middle power like Canada to influence the political, social and economic evolution in China, and to further our interests in the Pacific, is to be at the table —  not to stand back. 

When opportunity knocks we need to act. The search for counterweights to the U.S. through closer links across the Pacific and the Atlantic are now within reach.

Canadian policy requires care, circumspection and engagement. And it needs to be a Team Canada effort.

By holding to our three core objectives – the security alliance; our trade and investment access and avoiding anti-Americanism, Canada will succeed.

So how can we as individuals help manage the U.S. relationship? How many of you visited the U.S. in the last year?

Start by engaging Americans with three main messages:

  • First: We are a reliable ally and security partner. In the U.S., security trumps everything else, so start every conversation reminding Americans that we have their back.
  • Second: We are a fair and trusted trading partner. Canada is the main market for 35 states and the second market for the rest. U.S. trade with Canada generates 9 million jobs. It’s more than trade, it’s ‘making things together’ through supply chains to our mutual advantage. And one of my favourite factoids: The average Canadian eats $629 worth of U.S. agri-food products annually. The average American spent $69 on Canadian agri-food products.
  • Third: Canada is a secure, stable and reliable source of energy. Canadian-generated power lights up Broadway, keeps the cable cars going in San Francisco and powers the Mall of America in Minnesota. It fuels American manufacturing. With $2 billion dollars in trade daily, Canada has a slight surplus because we provide 40 percent of U.S. energy imports. Otherwise, they enjoy the surplus, especially in services.

Former U.S. Ambassador David Jacobson used to say “Canadians think they know everything about Americans and Americans think they know all they need to know about Canadians.” We are, Jacobson concluded, “both wrong”. 

Over the course of my career I learned to apply ten rules of the road for managing our relations with the U.S..

  1. Determine our ’Ask’. What will we ’Give’? Know our Facts.
    Messaging must be blunt and on point. And get to the point. It is not a level playing field. We only have a better than even chance when we are playing on ice.
  2. Get our act together within governments, with business, labour, and civil society.
    The Americans will exploit our differences to our cost as we are learning, once again, on softwood lumber where they will happily collect their import levy until we get our own act together. Margaret Atwood famously observed, when Americans look north they look into a mirror and see a reflection of themselves. There are always more Americans who think like Canadians than there are Canadians. We have a good brand but we need to develop it and use it more strategically. Americans like us more than we like them.
  3. No surprises.
    Americans don’t mind differences but they don’t like being blind-sided especially on security issues. And trying to link issues is tricky and rarely works to our advantage.
  4. Relationships are everything.
    We would never have got the Canada-U.S. FTA but for Brian Mulroney’s friendship with Ronald Reagan. Our networks need a thousand points of contact. Pitching is retail and a contact sport. As an icebreaker, knowledge of U.S. college football and basketball is very useful. I tell foreign service officers who are posted to the U.S. that a good way to meet Americans is to join a church … or if they want, to better understand ‘red state’ America, to join a gun club.
  5. Make it a U.S. issue and identify U.S. allies.
    We need American allies. We also need to play the game like Americans – by using lawyers and lobbyists. Their field, their rules. This is how we’ve gotten around various ‘Buy America’ restrictions. And trust the staff at our missions in the U.S. – the Embassy and our Consulates for their read of the local environment. They know a lot and have superb contacts. The U.S. is targeting China on steel and aluminum. In the past we got sideswiped until we got smart and had the U.S. Steelworkers make the case for their brothers and sisters in Canada. It helps that the Steelworkers president, Leo Gerard, was once Canadian Steelworkers head. Managing our interests requires all hands – labour and business.
  6. Recognize that Ottawa does not have all the answers.
  7. Devote more attention to legislators – both in Congress and in the states.
    The Administration is our entry point but the battleground is Congress and the states. And don’t forget that for legislators, all politics is local. I applaud the work of the premiers, including Premier Notley, in reaching out to governors. Attending regional conferences of the governors should be a command performance for all premiers.  Alberta legislators meet with their American counterparts at regional legislators conference. The private sector and legislators do great work at the Pacific Northwest Economic Region. PNWER - states, provinces and territories in the northwest - is the model for managing the nuts and bolts of trans-boundary relationships. Let me single out Lt. Gov. Lois Mitchell for her ongoing work with PNWER.
  8. Beware of noise and don’t get spooked.
    There is a tendency by some to behave like Chicken Little every time we see something we don’t like. A lot of what we hear from the media is noise. The Americans are masters at positioning. Sometimes I think Donald Trump owns Twitter. He excites the excitable and provides us a daily feed of dramatic headlines. We need to differentiate between the real and the improbable. Unlike the Canadian system, most congressional legislation fails – the percentage of bills passing Congress is about 4 percent of those introduced.
  9. Go for Gold.
    We are better than we think we are. There is a Canadian tendency to think about compromise from the outset. It is probably a reflection of our national character.  But negotiating ourselves down before we meet the Americans is a mistake. In other words, ask for what we really want rather than what we think they will give us. Americans don’t suffer from this malady. Business is business and the business of America is business.
  10. It is a permanent campaign.
    It needs all hands-on deck – all levels of government, business, labor and civil society and ordinary Canadians who have American friends and family and who spend time in the U.S.. The trade negotiations with the Trump administration are at a critical point. We have engaged with Congress, with governors and state legislators, with business and other allies. For us it is all hands-on deck and a game-plan supported by all levels of government, the public and private sector.

I understand that Bill Howard enjoyed a good story. Let me conclude with this apocryphal transcript of a radio conversation between a U.S. Naval ship and the Canadians, off the coast of Newfoundland. I offer it as encouragement to the Canadian delegation at this week’s NAFTA negotiations:

CANADIANS: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the South, to avoid a collision.

AMERICANS: Recommend you divert your course 15 degrees to the North, to avoid a collision.

CANADIANS: Negative. You will have to divert your course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.

AMERICANS: This is the Captain of a U.S. Navy Ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.

CANADIANS: Negative. I say again, you will have to divert your course.

AMERICANS: THIS IS THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER USS LINCOLN. THE SECOND LARGEST SHIP IN THE UNITED STATES ATLANTIC FLEET, WE ARE ACCOMPANIED BY THREE DESTROYERS, THREE CRUISERS, AND NUMEROUS SUPPORT VESSELS. I DEMAND THAT YOU CHANGE YOUR COURSE 15 DEGREES NORTH, I SAY AGAIN, THAT'S 15 DEGREES NORTH, OR COUNTERMEASURES WILL BE UNDERTAKEN TO ENSURE THE SAFETY OF THIS SHIP.

CANADIANS: We are a lighthouse. Your call.


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