An expert on Canada-U.S. relations says Donald Trump has Canada and Mexico right where he wants them as the three countries continue their attempts to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Christopher Sands, director of the Center for Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said the White House’s threat to levy new tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum likely came in response to Ottawa’s recent attempts to play hardball on the trade file.
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The most recent round of NAFTA talks wrapped up last week in Mexico City.
“The U.S. was looking to close as many (NAFTA) chapters as possible. … At the same time, you started to hear Prime Minister Trudeau saying publicly, ‘I’d rather have no deal than a bad deal,'” said Sands in an interview on this weekend’s edition of The West Block. “It looked like Canada was potentially going to play hard to get.”
Mexico, meanwhile, was signalling that its summer elections were coming and that a new president might not be so flexible either.
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“That’s what I think the Trump tariffs on steel and aluminum are about,” Sands said. “They’re about saying, ‘Things could get a lot worse for you if you don’t go ahead and sign a deal.'”
“Canada and Mexico feel that their backs are against the wall. Trump likes it that way.”
Canadian officials and businesses breathed a sigh of relief last week when Trump confirmed that Canada and Mexico would be exempt from the new tariffs — at least for now. The trade-off would be a NAFTA agreement Trump likes, and that he could sell to his base.
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Canada has worked hard to try to understand Trump’s patterns and moods, Sands said, but the Trudeau government still hasn’t always been able to accurately predict how the president will react.
“And I think in general, they’ve not always figured him out,” he said.
Meanwhile, he added, even the “establishment voices” in Washington — including Sands himself — failed to recognize that many Americans were just not keen on trade liberalization to begin with.
“The last time we had a president who was this kind of an economic nationalist was really the Richard Nixon administration,” Sands noted.
“And you can see echoes of that administration in this one, not so much on the Watergate front, but just in the way that global economic policy has become much more confrontational than it normally is.”
— Watch the full interview with Christopher Sands above.