WASHINGTON – The Canadian charm offensive in advance of NAFTA renegotiations will play out at one more venue before talks begin, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attending a gathering next week of several dozen U.S. state governors.
The prime minister will deliver a speech to more than 30 governors at the Rhode Island gathering of the National Governors Association and is expected to participate in less formal events like discussion forums.
This year’s annual gathering has two themes: technology and trade — and it’s the latter that will be of particularly pressing interest to Canada’s government.
The gathering comes just a few days before the Trump administration is expected to publish its negotiating positions for a new North American Free Trade Agreement — a public statement required under an agreement with Congress.
After that, negotiations are slated to begin between the U.S., Mexico and Canada in about a month.
“I am thrilled to welcome Prime Minister Trudeau to our summer meeting,” said the chair of the governors’ association, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe. “I know my fellow governors will agree that our relationship with Canada is essential to our states on key issues like trade, tourism, energy and many others.”
Trudeau’s office also put out a statement Friday, confirming his intention to deliver a keynote speech in Rhode Island on July 14. Trudeau said: “No countries share a closer bond… Ever more integrated supply chains draw our economies closer together, bringing jobs and prosperity to Canadians and Americans alike.”
Canadian officials insist the goal of this kind of outreach is not to bypass the trade-skeptical, Donald Trump-led federal government, as suggested in a recent New York Times piece on Canada-U.S. relations titled: “Canada’s Trump Strategy: Go Around Him.”
One official pointed out that Trudeau has already spoken nine or 10 times with the president, and is doing so again at this week’s G20 meeting. In addition, there will be senior Trump administration officials at the Rhode Island gathering, including possibly Vice-President Mike Pence.
The official cast the trip as part of what the Canadian government calls its 11-state strategy.
The plan is to build ties with politically important, trade-connected states in advance of NAFTA talks. They include Michigan, Indiana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania — all states that voted at least once for Barack Obama, but flipped to Trump and helped make him president.
The logic goes that building bridges now could prove useful later, in crossing troubled waters. If NAFTA talks hit a rocky patch, the Canadian side hopes that some Americans with real political clout might speak out in support of saving the agreement.
“This meeting is not an effort to go around Trump,” said one Canadian official. “It’s working with states… It’s the reality of the U.S. system.”
A former U.S. trade official says it makes sense for Canada to seek allies at the state level.
“It probably behooves the Canadian administration to strike up new relationships with major states,” said Welles Orr, former deputy assistant trade czar under the first President Bush.
“Having built-in relationships enables Trudeau and any prime minister to have a hotline to state (governors later)… It seems to me that it makes sense.”
Trump himself underscored the point Friday that the talks could turn turbulent.
In his weekly radio address, the president repeated his oft-stated threat to scrap NAFTA if he doesn’t get a good deal: “We are pursuing a total renegotiation of NAFTA and if we don’t get it, we will terminate — that is end — NAFTA forever.”