The danger of renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement disingenuously — which is the most accurate way to describe what Canada and the United States concluded recently — was not that a bad deal would result. No, the greater risk was that the entire bad-faith process would be so fraught and painful, it would forever discredit the notion that a good deal was worth striving for in the first place.
Given the anger and sourness that characterized every meager step toward the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, its most lasting legacy may simply be a moratorium on any further attempts to readjust the terms of U.S.-Canada relations for at least a decade, if not a generation.
Certainly the USMCA will not make history on its own merits. Phrases such as “eerily, suspiciously familiar” and “same old flaws” have loomed large in analyses of the deal, which heralds only the mildest deviation from the status quo. The concessions made at the margins seem mostly victories for the special interests who lobbied for or against them, not for most consumers. We are certainly no closer to a European-style arrangement of unfettered movement of goods and people than we were when the original Canada-U.S. free trade agreement was signed in 1988.
The omnipotent Canadian dairy cartel has taken a minor hit with a wee bit more American competition permitted on its turf — though not to the point where Canadian shoppers are expected to see any difference in prices. The worth of goods Canadians can buy online without paying sales taxes or duties is now $40 and $150 respectively, which the Retail Council of Canada says it can live with, given these numbers are still too low to promote online shopping for anything but convenience. The Canadian Media Producers Association, representing those who spend tax dollars cluttering the airwaves with “distinctly Canadian content” that Canadians don’t want, celebrated USMCA for retaining protectionism in their realm. With traditional self-delusion, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was praised for having “defended our cultural sovereignty.”
In theory, NAFTA renegotiations were an opportunity to fundamentally modernize the way Canada and the United States manage their economic relationship — a matter offering enormous opportunity to both sides. This didn’t happen because neither party was honestly animated by that goal.
The Trump administration has never cared much about Canadian trade, one way or another. The White House forced itself into caring about Canada simply because President Trump was elected with a mandate to bully Mexico, and trade with them was legally bound with Canada. Trump did accurately observe a number of injustices in the Canadian-U.S. flow of goods but, in the end, clearly wasn’t bothered to drive that hard a bargain.
The Trudeau administration, similarly, was elected without any mandate to alter U.S.-Canada relations. Like most Canadian progressives, the prime minister’s internationalist ambitions have posited Canada’s dependence on the United States as a parochial shame to escape, rather than a virtue to strengthen. Renegotiating NAFTA was a chore his government was assigned against its will.
The opposition parties in both countries were equally complicit, however. Neither the United States’ Democrats nor Canada’s Conservatives ever formulated a coherent theory of the NAFTA negotiations beyond a source of schadenfreude. Such laziness robbed the talks from any real presence in domestic politics beyond interest-group whining. Since neither opposition party bothered to articulate their own ideal of what NAFTA should be, there was no political pressure to yield anything specific.
It was symptomatic of the ideological insecurity and indecision that defines both minority parties at the moment. Democrats are currently facing pressure within their coalition to veer leftward, yet trade lingers near the bottom of any list of issues that social progressives spend time thinking about. The philosophical robustness of Canada’s Conservatives, likewise, has been numbed by leader Andrew Scheer’s decision to brand himself a defender of protectionism — particularly the dairy industry’s “supply management” regime.
The Trump factor can’t be underestimated either. Though the president’s NAFTA skepticism was not terribly dissimilar from that espoused by many Democrats in the past, a desire to be as far from Trump as possible forced the Democratic Party into a more pro-NAFTA position (or, at least, NAFTA-neutral) through sheer contrarianism.
Scheer’s heterodox position on protectionism, for its part, became more defensible after Trump’s rise as de facto leader of the North American conservative movement permitted right-wingers to embrace tariffs. That same de facto leadership, however, also put pressure on Scheer to disavow Trump in the name of Canadian sovereignty — hence Scheer’s repeated instance that he was basically on Trudeau’s side (or rather, the side of “Team Canada”) during the negotiations. The deal will pass the Canadian parliament with overwhelming Tory support, and likely will earn significant Democratic backing in Congress, as well.
During their inaugural summit in February of 2017, both Trump and Trudeau overflowed with boilerplate praise for the importance of U.S.-Canada ties. “In these dangerous times, it is more important than ever that we continue to strengthen our vital alliance,” Trump said.
“Make no mistake — at the end of the day, Canada and the U.S. will always remain each other’s most essential partner,” agreed the prime minister.
Neither man honestly believed these words, and the year of acrimony that followed reflected this fact. Any further progress on the worthy cause of Canada-U.S. integration is now doomed to sit in political purgatory.