An Open Letter to Justin Trudeau
Why the new USMCA Agreement will have devastating consequences for Canada’s strategic reputation and strategic future. And what’s to be done to fix this?
Dear Prime Minister:
There are two types of leaders on the world stage, just as there are two types of people: those who set the terms, and those who live on the terms of others.
I have come to the unfortunate professional determination that you have all too comfortably consigned yourself, and by implication Canada, to the latter category. You, sir, are no term-setter. Nay, as you approach your first re-election contest in 2019, I believe that you have presided over a period in government and made one or two historical mistakes of commission and omission that, in strategic terms, will set our country back at least a decade – if not two.
While I am a strict non-partisan, I was truly very impressed by the initial energy, can-do spirit and, to be sure, love and ken of country that you brought to your post after you formed government in 2015. You corrected some of the behavioural and policy pathologies of the prior government, and in your first year enjoyed exceptional goodwill and political oxygen, both nationally and internationally. In addition, you have, in my judgement, almost always conducted yourself as a public gentleman at a time when this seems less and less the favoured fashion.
As you may know, I have been publicly critical of the lost opportunity for Canada to have greatly expanded its global footprint and influence in the first few years of your prime ministership, particularly given the clear international vacuum of – and demand for – major leadership and the historic opening afforded to Canada, the Canadian brand, and the Canadian imagination by juxtaposition with the Trump presidency from the year 2016. You either did not fully see the opportunity, did not want to, or simply did not know how to move on it fast enough.
The new USMCA Agreement decisively closes the historic opportunity for Canada under your leadership. I believe this betrays a strategic incompetence of historic and potentially existential consequence and proportions.
The recent signature you affixed to the new United States-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) Agreement decisively closes the unique opportunity for Canada under your leadership. Indeed, without overstepping or overstating, let me assert that I believe this signature to betray a strategic incompetence of historic and, over the long run, potentially existential consequence and proportions for the country you lead. I clearly overestimated you and the foreign minister, and underestimated the Americans – even in their present political degeneracy and weakened strategic reputation.
The central clause in question is Article 32.10 of the USMCA. What does it say, and what does it require? Each of the three signatories to the treaty must notify the others of any intention to enter into free-trade negotiations with any ‘non-market country,’ advise on the objectives of those negotiations, and provide, prior to the signature of any such free-trade agreement, the full text of the agreement for review and assessment by the other signatories of the USMCA. The meaning of ‘non-market country’ is as determined by the trade remedy laws of any one of the three signatories, provided none of the signatories already has a free-trade agreement with the ‘non-market country’ in question.
Subsection 4 of this article reads: “Entry by any Party into a free-trade agreement with a non-market country shall allow the other Parties to terminate this Agreement [USMCA] on six-month notice and replace this Agreement with an agreement as between them.”
Buried so deep in the agreement, and when properly ‘gamed out,’ this unusual clause, in the context of an overall treaty to which you have agreed under pressure – and not world-historical pressure, mind you – will have devastating consequences for the strategic future and strategic reputation of Canada. I am being diplomatic.
Allow me to explain and then ask you a series of direct questions.
You and your government asserted, over the course of more than a year of negotiations for a modernized NAFTA, that Canada was part of a tripartite process to update a 25-year old trade agreement. To be clear, this renegotiation of NAFTA was not initiated by your side, but rather by the new US president. More clearly still, the first-mover in the renegotiation, as well as in threatening to withdraw from NAFTA in the absence of renegotiation, was the US – never Canada, and never Mexico.
I have no doubt, given the professionalism of Ottawa, that you and your team entered this renegotiation with a view to advancing Canada’s own objectives. In your public pronouncements and briefings, until the 11th hour, you asserted that Canada was a tough negotiator, defending the Canadian interest, and that Canada would not sign onto any agreement that was ‘bad.’
In the end, however, you signed onto a deal that, via Article 32.10 – never once mentioned in public or among even the cognoscenti until the deal was done – effectively strips Canada of any ability to negotiate free-trade agreements with China and, if pressed, a host of other potential economic partners.
This is only a first-order, surface-level implication of your signature: the broader implications for Canada go well beyond pure foreign policy and spill over quickly into economic policy, Canada’s overall reputation and image in the world, our national identity and, lastly, the long-run ability of Ottawa and the federal government to represent properly the interests of Canada in the 21st century.
While you and your government may not yet appreciate what you have done, Canadian accession to this treaty is, in sporting terms, an own goal of the near-highest magnitude – equivalent in form, although less cataclysmic in scale or less immediately obvious in its strategic folly, to the UK’s own goal through Brexit (a set of decisions that all specialists concede can and will only make the UK smaller, poorer and more provincial in its convictions).
I write to you, and to the Canadian public in copy, in the sincere hope that you will, on deep reflection, reconsider Canada’s decision with speed and purpose, so that the country can avoid an abrupt, unconscious and completely self-imposed relegation to the margins of international life and the human condition just as the world was looking to us in particular for ambition, vision and, critically, a demonstrated ability to deliver.
Question 1: Your foreign minister was tasked in her mandate letter to negotiate an update to NAFTA – an economic and commercial treaty. Who gave her a mandate to negotiate, and you a mandate to sign, a wholesale foreign policy union – a strategic pact, for all practical intents and purposes – with Washington?
Let there be no doubt – this is what it is. It took Canada nearly a century to get out of the British orbit. At the start of this new century, when people are looking to Canada for foreign policy innovation, initiative and leadership in solving major problems, you have outsourced all executive decision-making to another country. How can this be?
Trade lawyers in your government and superficial enthusiasts will comfort you in saying that the text of Article 32.10, first, is not tantamount to an American veto on Canadian strategic decision-making; second, that if it is a veto of any sort, then that veto exists for any and all of the three signatory countries; and third, that every trade treaty, including the original NAFTA, has come with a provision for withdrawal by any party for a variety of reasons.
We have many excellent lawyers in Canada, but alas, no real strategists. This has now become all too painfully plain. Article 32.10 was driven not by a legal logic, but rather a brutally strategic one: to lock Canada – procedurally, economically and, most importantly, psychologically – into US decision-making.
We have many excellent lawyers in Canada, but alas, no real strategists. This has now become all too painfully plain. Article 32.10 was driven not by a legal logic, but rather a brutally strategic one: to lock Canada – procedurally, economically and, most importantly, psychologically – exclusively into the orbit of American decision-making; and, more brutally still, to the strategic and tactical predilections and caprices of the peculiar administration of the day in Washington.
Washington knows what it has achieved. Beijing realized it immediately. I am certain that major capitals like Moscow, New Delhi, Tokyo, Brussels, Paris and Brasilia quickly understood what had happened as well. Have you yet seized upon what has happened? And again, how could this happen?
Foreign leaders, having seen the president’s behaviour and America’s demonstrative withdrawal from and unapologetic breach of several major treaties, are hedging against American tactical caprice and strategic disengagement.
Question 2: You were negotiating with a president and an administration that, in terms of political ethics, is unusually degenerate, and whose strategic judgement and commitment are not trusted in any serious capital on Earth – from Berlin, Paris and Brussels through to Moscow, Ankara, Beijing and Tokyo. In all these capitals, decision-makers, having seen the American president’s behaviour and America’s demonstrative withdrawal from and unapologetic breach of several major treaties (including the original NAFTA), are busily hedging against American tactical caprice and strategic disengagement. While all this is happening, and so obviously, how can it be that you have signed an agreement that expressly outsources key strategic and economic decision-making to Washington – and, I repeat, to this president and administration in particular?
Are we now to wait for Washington’s judgement and approval for serious Canadian strategic investment in China and, if not China, then in respect of any number of other countries that the Americans themselves deem, at any given moment, and for their own strategic or political reasons (but always in their own interest), ‘non-market’? Is India non-market or market? What about Brazil? Why do we trust that the Americans know what is best for Canada (or even for themselves, for that matter)? What is their foreign policy talent today? Do they know something that we do not? Do they know Canada’s borders, political and cultural traditions and specificities, and indeed our strategic opportunities better than we do ourselves?
The ink on your signature having barely dried, President Trump directed a tweet at Mexico, threatening to breach or pull out of the USMCA in reaction to American security preoccupations on the Mexican-American border. Such threats, coherent or incoherent, substantive or merely expressive, will continue throughout the life of this administration, and will surely be turned (again) toward Canada on a variety of policy issues in the near future. (And why not similarly so under a future rapacious American president, if he or she is taking proper notes?) Bref, while you, Prime Minister, as a Canadian leader and per the Canadian tradition, will piously and pedantically observe the letter and spirit of this new treaty, you will have ceded Canadian decision-making to a foreign capital that operates, for the foreseeable future, on raw caprice and calculation, viewing this treaty as binding when necessary, but not necessarily binding.
In the meantime, having locked ourselves into the American orbit in law, operations and psychology, we will have wasted precious time – decades, in fact – not spreading our wings around the world, and not strengthening our global positions and relationships, including vis-à-vis Washington, commensurate with the size, potential and global import of our country.
Question 3: You signed under pressure and under the threat of more pressure. The pressure came from imposed tariffs (steel and aluminum, and even softwood lumber), the threat of new tariffs on Canada’s auto sector, and from a supposed deadline of October 1st – one that had been shifted back on several occasions without any additional tariffs having been applied against Canada. You said that Canada would resist any pressure in order to seal a deal that was good for Canada and Canadians. And yet, at the 11th hour, before this last deadline, you accelerated the approval of the many chapters of the new deal and signed. Why? Do you realize what you have done to the country’s strategic reputation? Do you realize that the Americans now smell blood for the next round of negotiations, whatever the issue or policy field? And how can any other serious country now take Canada seriously in major international negotiations, recognizing that our leadership has signed – and is seen to have signed – away so very much, so very quickly, under pressure?
Prime Minister, when I worked in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in Canberra, Australia, there was a major diplomatic and legal dispute between Australia and the much smaller city-state of Singapore. Over the course of more than a year, Australia applied huge, if not ferocious, political pressure on Singapore to fold to its preferences. Sitting at the centre of government in Australia, I was certain that Singapore would cede ground, if not crumble altogether before the Australian pressure campaign – which even included a face-to-face meeting between then Australian Prime Minister John Howard and Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong. But the Singaporeans did not budge. Why?
Later, when I was visiting professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, I realized that the Singaporean strategic toughness is fairly unique among the nations. They know their interests cold, they know how to use the instruments of power, and they will not budge when pressed to cede ground in core areas of national strategy. As with the Israelis, from whom the Singaporeans have drawn conspicuous notes and lessons for half a century, Singapore knows that to show strategic weakness before a strategic bully has existential consequences for the republic. To the contrary, if Singapore negotiates, as with the Israelis, it aims to bloody the nose of the bigger country – both to protect its interests and the state’s legitimacy, but also to forewarn all future, invariably bigger negotiating partners that negotiating with Singapore is an exceedingly unpleasant and painful experience. Bref, Singapore’s behaviour is always driven by the existential logic of forcing its more massive opposite numbers to think twice, even thrice, before wanting to press Singapore on any number of major questions of policy and strategy.
Have you, Prime Minister, thought beyond your nose in signing this deal? Can you see tomorrow at all? A future US president or administration that knows how and is disposed to use brutal instruments of economic or even military pressure on Canada will know that the pain threshold of Canada’s leaders is extremely low. The current American president, should he so please in the coming months and years (if he survives this term and into a second term), will have taken good notes on our weak resistance and willingness to offer up critical tools of national decision-making in order to make the pain – real or threatened, credibly or not – go away, even if temporarily. In other words, our country breathes easily, for the time being, purely on the beneficence of this and future American presidents. Should a random caprice turn his mood and focus once again in our disfavour, we will have no capacity to resist whatsoever.
If Washington has quickly absorbed the lesson of our weakness, then all other serious capitals, starting with the ones at our immediate borders – Beijing to the west and Moscow across the Arctic – will also have taken notes.
If Washington has quickly absorbed the lesson of our weakness, then all other serious capitals, starting with the ones at our immediate borders – Beijing to the west and Moscow across the Arctic – will also have taken notes. If we should ever undertake major negotiations with them again, on any matter, Canada will struggle to be taken seriously precisely because you and your government have shown us to be extremely quick to blink under pain or threat of pain. And these are capitals that, without exception, know how to inflict pain.
Why did you sign? What was the rush? We appeared to have been resisting tariff and deadline pressures with success. You had my full support in standing tough – as long as it took, even well into 2019 – in order to secure favourable positions for Canada. Surely the threat of auto tariffs, mooted many times over by President Trump but never implemented, should not have been enough to accelerate our signature of such a strategically deficient compact? And what if Trump was faking the auto tariff, knowing that it would cause nearly as much pain for the US as for Canada, given the cross-border integration of the sector? What lessons will he have drawn from our rapid capitulation?
And if he was serious, what conclusions could he then draw from our behaviour? That we are quick to give up strategic, long-run decision-making power to avert short-term, tactical pain? Quick indeed. Prime Minister, you have succumbed to stress, at signal cost to national decision-making powers for a generation to come, without even having negotiated away (that is, removed) the sources of that stress. The tariffs are still in place, and the future use of tariffs not only highly possible, but indeed, given your decision-making, effectively legitimated as an effective tool of negotiation and national strategy by a bigger partner.
You, sir, have consigned Canada to the status of strategic cripple – unable and unwilling to defend its own national decision-making power and prerogatives under stress (and seen as such), and exceedingly vulnerable to even further concessions and extractions under the next round of stress, should it come tomorrow or the day after. And more vulnerable still, it must be said, on account of not having fully realized what has happened, in its manifold permutations.
Question 4: The surest sign of the colonial mind and condition is that of not even realizing one’s own colonial circumstances. In the event, Prime Minister, while you continue to celebrate this deal as a good one for Canada in terms of automobiles, dairy, culture and other areas of the Canadian economy, the Americans have been stressing their strategic success in blocking – for all practical intents and purposes – our sovereign ability to make deals with their primary strategic rival and economic competitor, China. Did you understand the logic of their thinking all along, or were you so focussed on Bucket A as to entirely miss, or not properly appreciate, Bucket B? Now that the importance of Bucket B is becoming more plain, do you even care? Why box our country out altogether from Bucket B? Worse still, why force Canada to partake – for all practical intents and purposes – in American hostility toward Bucket B?
The Canadian public and even most Canadian policy professionals continue to assess this agreement in the conventional terms of relative economic rents to Canada as compared with the US (or Mexico), and as compared with the economic rents accruing to Canada in the original NAFTA agreement. The governing mental image and framework driving the public and official Canadian understanding of the deal is of products (and services) crossing the Canada-US border (virtually and physically, across all transport modes) with minimal friction (tariffs, regulations and prohibitions), subject to especial provisos or accommodations on all sides – for instance, for Canada, on supply management, culture, indigenous considerations or dispute resolution.
Washington took your governing, simplistic mental map, allowed you to press it as sacrosanct, and began a strategic negotiation on an altogether different plane – that of the entire future of international and economic relations outside of North American borders. This was obviously a theme that either interested you little, or on which you and your team had little to say, and indeed had scant ammunition through which to engineer a meaningful position in the Canadian interest.
When all was said and done, the Americans allowed you to declare victory on the first plane, while the second plane – that of real strategy – went completely unoccupied. Canada had conceded its foreign decision-making prerogatives to a foreign power with virtually no resistance – indeed, with hardly anyone in the public and even political and strategic classes noticing.
Question 5: But what happens when the country finally notices – half a year or a few years from now – that the national government is patently unable and unwilling to make any meaningful international moves because it has formally surrendered this ability to the say-so of Washington? What happens when China, only a few years hence, becomes the world’s largest and most important economy, and that our national government has given away all sovereign ability to negotiate with China in any deep sense on a huge swathe of economic questions (even well short of free trade)? What happens when Ottawa is no longer able to represent, in the most intense and comprehensive sense, the interests of Canadian business, science, the academy and, of course, the citizenry in their engagement with this century’s most important country?
A government that cannot effectively represent the long-term interests and aspirations of its people, under changing circumstances, will over time lose legitimacy. Tout court.
More dangerously still, the USMCA, as you have signed it, creates the potential for great domestic turbulence should Canada ever try to free itself from the stricture of Article 32.10. Realizing the growing economic and strategic centrality of China, there will be a large portion of the Canadian population – especially the younger, increasingly educated, future-oriented population, but also very practical business interests – who will, as is already happening in much of the rest of the world, push for Canadian immersion into China and full-scale, uninhibited economic and people-to-people relations with the world’s largest country, at the heart of the world’s most dynamic continent (Asia). At the same time, there will be an indubitably large portion of the population, supported by a heavily invested border lobby, not only insisting on what will by then be a nearly exclusive Canadian economic attachment to the US, but also very vocal (and nervous) about the notion that the Americans will, as explicitly expressed in Article 32.10, pull out of the USMCA should Canada move toward deeper engagement with China (by then still the US’s main strategic and economic competitor).
The hard language of Article 32.10 removes the informal understandings of international consultation (the effective buffer in international affairs) with a strict legal and behavioural cage that means that any Canadian pivot toward China threatens a deep tear with the US. The inability of our federation to navigate these two attractive poles – two huge gravitational pulls – could create revolutionary pressures across the national territory.
If Canada is banged back into place or into its box several times, it may one day have a leadership class that wishes for the country to behave according to its proper dimensions and potential. Washington will not allow this to happen without substantial cost.
If the USMCA foreshadows great domestic turbulence in Canada in respect of a caged national government in Ottawa, then the agreement is equally pregnant with near-frontal conflict with the US. For if Canada is banged back into place or into its box several times by Washington, it may one day have a leadership class that wishes for the country to behave according to its proper dimensions and potential. Washington will not allow this to happen easily or without substantial pain and cost for Canada. The likelihood of confrontation and collision is very high. You have set us up for this future logic.
Question 6: What is China? Why is it even important to Canada? Why would you allow Canada to be boxed out so easily of a direct strategic and economic relationship with this century’s most important country?
In truth, I do not think you properly understand China or what is happening there. The same is true, unfortunately, of much of the Canadian public and our political, business and cultural elites – whatever their education or intellect. The reason for this state of general ignorance or underappreciation of what is happening in China is fairly manifest: Canada has never known a modern China that is stable, wealthy and strategically ambitious. The entire century and a half of Canadian Confederation coincides almost exactly with the long period of Chinese political destabilization and economic weakness following their losses in the two Opium Wars in the 19th century.
Bref, Canada has never had to reckon with a serious China, including as a major strategic and economic opportunity and imperative for the country. As such, we have never really had to consider our very own geographic proximity to China: Whitehorse is closer to Beijing than is Sydney, Australia, and Prince Rupert is closer to Shanghai than is Canberra. If the Australians have, for the last three or so decades, determined that they are ‘in Asia,’ for all strategic and economic purposes, then Canada is itself also clearly ‘in Asia.’
Of course, if Canada is ‘in Asia’ (and does not quite realize it yet), then we are also clearly very much ‘in America,’ which makes our geopolitical game this century exceedingly complex. If you add Russia to the mix at our northern border, across the rapidly melting polar ice (at least in seasonal terms), then we have very challenging borders indeed this century. And yet I am not persuaded that you yet understand or that your team seriously ‘feels’ these borders and the consequences of strategic mistakes in respect of them.
China is no yellow or alien abstraction. It is a dominant fact of modern international life. If most of the world – developed and not – is at least partially pivoting to Asia in general and China in particular, only strategic incompetence would have the leader of a G7 country allow his country to be taken out of the game at the very start of the century – when the game has just begun.
Why would China even speak to us today? If there is absolutely no prospect of a free-trade agreement with them in any foreseeable future, there is also no prospect of any enhanced economic interaction with them on nearly any level – sector-based (as the Public Policy Forum suggests), regulatory or other. Why? Because while you have not yet gamed this out, the Chinese are extremely swift. They know that the Americans, if at all focussed, will use the new legal and, to be sure, psychological levers expressly presented in the USMCA to frustrate or altogether block any progress in Canada-China relations – economically in the first instance, but even well beyond economics and into the realms of human rights, science and culture. How do they know this? Because the Chinese would do the same with a country that, incompetence oblige, would allow a comparable clause to be incorporated into what amounts, for all practical intents and purposes, to its external constitution.
No senior Chinese leader, and certainly not Xi Jinping, will be coming to Ottawa for the foreseeable future for any serious purpose. Why bother? If Beijing knows that we are now making important decisions on the express permission or, in the best case, as some Canadians have now begun to articulate (with a straight face), in the hope of not upsetting, provoking or triggering the Americans, then China – and, alongside them, most leading countries, on all continents – will rightly begin to see Canada as but an extension of American power and the American project. And under your leadership, alas, a happy extension of American power indeed.
Again, some Canadian enthusiasts, public or official, may see Canada’s marginalization vis-à-vis China and other major countries as some badge of honour – a sign, perhaps in populist terms, that Canada has principles and associates only with extremely like-minded countries. And yet, in a world in which the Asian continent is the central theatre, the US is politically unstable and radicalized, and the number of moderate federations that are comparable to Canada is extremely limited, this marginalization should be no source of pride; nay, it is a sign of strategic benightedness.
Question 7: Why have you allowed Canada to be boxed into a single bilateral relationship at the expense of the necessary bilateral relationships we will need to manage our borders this century? Just as all other clever countries are hedging their bets against a weakened, capricious US in the context of other rising powers, how could you box us out of the game altogether?
Prime Minister, as I have written in past issues of GB, unlike at Confederation, Canada has not one or two, but four essential borders this century: America to the south, China to the west, Russia to the north, and Europe to the east (ACRE, as it were). These are difficult borders – all nuclearized and all occupied by major powers. If Canada is to survive and succeed this century – and contrary to your instinct, this is by no means assured in historical space-time – your job and that of your successors is to minimize the chances of us being crushed from any single front, or from two or more fronts acting in concert against us.
In the event, we now have hostile to quasi-hostile relations on two of our four borders. On our relations with Russia, I have written enough in these pages. You have done almost nothing in your time in office to improve Canada’s prospects of strategic success on our northern border, still presuming Russia to be to the east of Europe as opposed to immediately across our Arctic plane, and therefore some barbarian abstraction that has no practical consequence for Canada’s present or future.
Through the USMCA, however, you have now also closed off any meaningful prospect of mature, country-to-country and people-to-people relations with China for the foreseeable future. Nay, without even realizing it, you have, having outsourced decision-making in any relevant regard here to Washington, enlisted Canada head-first into America’s strategic and trade conflicts with China. Why? We Canadians know almost nothing about China today, and yet we have already subordinated ourselves to the American brief.
A straightforward security calculus shows that we now have enemies or potential enemies on two of our four immediate borders, with a highly uncertain and capricious friend and ally to our south, and a distant ally to our east. A clever country with clever leadership, given such a border configuration, would pursue good relations on all borders, minimizing the probability for outright collision on any border, and always leaving openings for solving problems. In the event, you have set us off on a logic of self-isolation along our two ‘newest’ and most complex borders. Presumably, you think that the fates will always be on our side.
If we are self-isolating at our borders, then Canada today also enjoys only six embassies among the 15 post-Soviet states; 21 embassies on an African continent comprising 54 countries; and nine embassies among the 16 or so countries of the Middle East (with one of our nine ambassadors presently expelled). Already highly underrepresented and undercapacited in international assets, capabilities and relationships – given our country’s size and wealth – you, sir, are presiding over a period of decisive shrinking, formally and figuratively, of the Canadian strategic imagination.
Question 8: How can Canada get out of this strategic box? Can we do so without disturbing the domestic peace or creating extremely confrontational conditions with the US – given that we would have to signal expressly to Washington that we are interested in striking deeper economic relationships with major and rising powers on our own terms?
Answer: with great difficulty. For now, we do not even realize the box into which we have got ourselves. By the time we do realize it, the cost of exit – in terms of political effort, economic and strategic threats and penalties from Washington, and domestic discord – may be so high as to discourage any brave set of Canadian political or economic leaders from doing so. The national instinct – one that you have promoted – may be to settle for what John A. Macdonald saw as ‘secondary people’ status.
But perhaps we are not a secondary people? Perhaps we may, at some point this century, be the second largest country, demographically, in the Western world, with the second largest territory, having direct borders with three continents? Unless we wish to explicitly accept or enshrine vassal or colonial status, how could we break from our behavioural cage?
As mentioned, you have set our country off on a strategic and political logic that foretells, over the medium term, domestic discord – even revolutionary debates – and potentially great confrontation with the US. If I were an American leader, why would I let us out of the box into which they have cleverly placed us, and into which we have foolishly allowed ourselves to be placed?
In the immediate term, I ask that you avoid ratification for as long as possible. If you have not the wisdom and temerity to do this, then I ask that your cabinet and caucus colleagues, as well as independent senators, apply the requisite pressure. I ask the same of our provincial premiers and leaders: delay and block ratification. It may well be, as you know full well, that President Trump does not even last the term (which also begs the question of why we would sign onto this agreement with him). A possible weakening of the American president after the midterms or after the publication of the findings of the Mueller investigation could give you enough tactical wiggle room to delay and dither.
And still, even if we end up not ratifying USMCA in its present form, the damage to our strategic reputation in the eyes of serious people in serious capitals will have already been done by dint of your signature alone.
If we do end up ratifying, then the earliest opportunity to renegotiate would seem to be the six-year review window articulated in the treaty. That is when you or your successor will have to push ruthlessly for Canada to remove Article 32.10 in its entirety. By then, of course, we Canadians will have been so locked into the American decision-making gravity – especially in psychological terms – that the national appetite for some species of exit will have been suppressed almost irreversibly. We might by then even wonder whatever the problem was – so unconscious will we have become of the cage in which we operate (and think). And indeed by that time, we will have lost nearly a decade’s worth of time and policy work that we should have been investing, and that our competitors globally will have been using, in pressing the national interest in other major markets – starting with China, by then the world’s economic leader – on our own terms.
Bref, future Canadian political leaders will have a major public education campaign on their hands to try to create a more muscular national consensus in favour of needing to break from this cage. Such a consensus-building campaign could involve elements such as a national languages strategy – employed by the Australians as they built their own pro-Asian consensus over the course of several decades in order to break from their colonial attachment to a very distant UK – to a nation-wide programme of regular exchanges between Canada and China (and other major countries) in government, business, academia, science and culture.
One thing seems clear to me, even if it is not yet so in your eyes: Canada’s break from this cage will not manifest itself in a declaration of national intent to negotiate a free-trade agreement with China or any other major country deemed non-market by the US. Nay, it will be far more gradual, growing (I hope) as the national consciousness of our size, potential and national imperatives this century grows.
Question 9: Why are you, to this day, pretending that Article 32.10 is a trivial part of the agreement that you have negotiated and signed? If it is indeed trivial, then what is your strategy – in all seriousness – for China in the coming year or years? And can we be assured, given your signature, that the Americans will not press us again, even ruthlessly, for more concessions – economic or other – through tariffs or other means? Have you received such assurances in any credible form?
You cannot have undertaken to negotiate a trade agreement, only to presume to give away sovereign decision-making without a full and proper explanation to the Canadian public or even debates among experts and in Parliament. This is politically unacceptable and dishonourable – especially for a public gentleman of your history and pedigree. You and your foreign minister owe the Canadian public a clear explanation of why this article was allowed to be included in the structure and constitution of this treaty, why it does not harm Canada (or even benefits the public) or, as I would contend, why you now understand it to be a historic mistake and what the immediate plan is to correct and reverse it to the fullest extent possible – the reputational damage to Canada already having been done.
Your foreign minister, for all her talents and qualities, spent the lion’s share of her time over the last two years in Washington, DC. She negotiated this treaty in the office of the US Trade Representative – not in Ottawa. The intellectual and policy traffic was largely one-way. During this period, Canada committed almost no serious resources or energy to any other international or global issue or problem, presuming that NAFTA or USMCA was the centre of any and all relevant public activity outside of our borders. In the end, she concluded a treaty that, in strategic terms, signed Canada up to the American framing of the world. Canada will play its dutiful part. Not having our own theory of the world, we have signed up to the theory provided by the senior partner, whatever its manifest flaws and inconsistencies, and holding constant any essential difference in national interests.
If one needed any further evidence of this absence of Canadian theory, then I might suggest re-reading the speech we delivered at the UN General Assembly this past fall. That speech was to be delivered, with great fanfare, by your foreign minister. I myself had been looking forward to her speech to the world, as Canada was overdue for an ambitious articulation of clear strategic direction for the country, given the state of the world, the peculiar disposition of our American ally, and our own apparent strategic disorientation.
Alas, the speech was given instead by our distinguished permanent representative to the UN. With the greatest respect for the representative, the speech was a cipher: it told the world, and the Canadian public, nothing about what Canada planned to achieve concretely, and nothing about how we essentially saw the world. The word ‘China’ – tellingly – did not appear once in the entire speech; quite a feat for a country trying to seriously explain its position in today’s world to a serious audience. Meanwhile, on the very day of that speech, you and the foreign minister were holding a joint press conference in Ottawa, publicly proclaiming Canadian success in signing the USMCA.
Question 10: The biggest challenge in global governance today is how the world’s major strategic and economic blocs interact with one another: will they interact as blocks of coal, banging against each other until one disintegrates (while the other hopefully survives), or will they be able to create what I call ‘interstitial tendons’ that can serve as buffers and connective tissue between the blocs – averting frontal conflict and, in extremis, war?
If the Ukrainian revolution and the Donbass war were the result of the general absence of interstitial tendons between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union – an absence that continues to threaten war across that interstitial space – then the USMCA has boxed Canada into what is becoming a hard North American bloc that, on Washington’s view of the world, should be banging up hard against China or any China-led bloc, even if this hostile logic should issue before long in direct or proxy conflict.
I am sure you do not yet realize this, but you will soon. Canada should have been playing an essential part in building the interstitial tissue between the North American bloc and Asian blocs to our west, and indeed between the North American bloc and the post-Soviet bloc across our Arctic space. We have forfeited this critical role in setting this century’s new international architecture before the game has even begun. There is perhaps no better proof of your happy subordination to the term-setters of Washington.
The good news is, Prime Minister, that even major mistakes in the history of a successful country like Canada need not be determinant of a painful future. They may be predictive, but not determinant. Corrective leadership, by you or a future government, can turn the tables. But it will be that much more difficult and painful over time – and so very unnecessarily so.
Irvin Studin is Editor-in-Chief & Publisher of Global Brief.