SIMI VALLEY, Calif.—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau subtly urged the American president late last week to not tear down a decades old trade relationship in the name of “winning,” cautioning against a rush to build walls between their two countries.
The North American Free Trade Agreement has boosted the number of American jobs, of which nine million today are reliant on free trade, Trudeau said.
Ending that over what was akin to the score in a hockey game—“reduced to a balance of trade statistics or a tariff rate,” Trudeau said—would upend lives on both sides of the border in a manner no one can predict.
If free trade between Canada and the U.S. was a bad idea, “then there are no good ideas,” Trudeau said during his speech to local and state legislators.
The prime minister, speaking in a building named for the president who signed the landmark Canada-U.S. free trade deal, conceded that the accord being renegotiated had to be updated to help people left behind by free trade and a technological revolution.
“But in furthering these aims, let us not step back from the progress our countries have made with extraordinary effort since the post-war years. Let’s not raise fresh barriers between our peoples,” Trudeau said at the Ronald Reagan presidential library.
“That would harm the very folks who need our help most. The nexus point for this all is NAFTA.”
Trudeau has tried to make the case to Americans during his four-day swing through the United States that trade has been a boon for their country, despite their concerns. In Chicago, he suggested that ending that trade would cause economic disruption that could hurt Trump politically.
Trump’s threats to tear up NAFTA under the mantra of “America First” have cast a shadow over negotiations, which are stuck on key issues around auto parts, a sunset clause, and how to resolve disputes between governments and companies.
Trudeau said negotiators have already agreed on three chapters—rules around competition, small and medium-sized enterprises and anti-corruption measures. He said negotiators are also within range of closing “several more bread-and-butter chapters” at the next meeting.
There are still two rounds of talks before the congressional midterm elections in the United States, giving Trudeau a chance to pitch trade to people up for re-election and those in state legislatures, said Bruce Heyman, former U.S. ambassador to Canada.
“This is a very tricky moment. The president is completely unpredictable, he’s making decisions that make no long-term sense,” Heyman said outside the Reagan library.
“If we make the political heat too hot for the president, maybe he’ll make a decision that would enable us to stay in.”
John Heubusch, executive director of the Reagan library and institute, said Reagan would have likely agreed with Trump on the idea of putting American interests at the forefront of negotiations, but would diverge on the idea that the U.S. economy could make a go of it absent trade.
“This can’t be America alone, especially with a trading partner as vital as Canada,” he said.
Reagan was president when the United States and Canada signed a landmark free trade deal in 1988, a forerunner to the North American deal reached a few years later. A copy of the agreement, along with a Reagan autograph, were presented to Trudeau ahead of his speech.
The two-term Republican president was also a good friend of then-prime minister Brian Mulroney, who Trudeau said was tougher with Reagan than many believe. Trudeau said his father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, had a more nuanced relationship with Reagan, but one that was no less constructive—similar to the younger Trudeau’s relationship with Trump.
Heubusch said the chairman of the institute’s board of trustees, Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan, raised the idea of Trudeau visiting the centre during a recent meeting with Mulroney.
Trudeau’s team likely couldn’t pass up the opportunity to use Reagan’s image as part of their free-trade blitz, particularly for Republican lawmakers and voters who have granted the former president mythological status.
“One thing that the Trudeau government is brilliant at is its messaging. It gets the idea of symbols,” said Kathy Brock, a professor in the school of policy studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.
“It’s about building ties and contrasting the old conservative United States with the conservative United States under Donald Trump,” she said.
“That plays into the two-pronged strategy of putting a little pressure on the current president and Congress to think carefully about our trade ties, but then also reminding the United States of a president and a legacy that many people view with some affection now.”
The Liberal leader’s full-throated support of the free trade that Reagan trumpeted—and invoking the former presidents words on free trade with Canada—will cause a shake-up among American conservatives, particularly think-tanks that have influence over President Donald Trump’s policies, said Sean Speer, a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.
Speer said old-school Republicans may rethink their backing of Trump if they see his trade threats as unravelling the legacy of a president lionized in Republican circles.