President Trump’s recent brag about discussing trade with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in brazenly bad faith — insisting, in admitted ignorance, upon the existence of a Canadian trade surplus, then demanding “one of our guys” find facts to fit his predetermined conclusion — seems on the surface to be a story far more about the personality of the United States president than any deeper reality of the North American economy. In such a context, it’s certainly easy to muster instinctive sympathy for Canada’s side in the trade talks, with Ottawa cast as the hapless victim of a mercurial White House.
Locked in tough negotiations, Trudeau’s government would certainly prefer a Trump-centric analysis to be the dominant understanding of Canadian voters, and the go-to excuse if North American Free Trade Agreement renegotiations do wind up failing — an outcome that could have dire consequences for the Canadian economy and perhaps for the prime minister’s political fortunes.
Yet buried within Trump’s braggadocio is a kernel of truth. Canada, in some small but important ways, has indeed “outsmarted” the United States on trade, and it is not entirely irrational for Americans to be unsatisfied with the Canada side of the NAFTA status quo. One can certainly argue as to whether, in the grand scheme of things, this is really the most pressing problem for the White House to be exerting energy to correct, or whether the most extreme course-correction — trashing a flawed trade deal rather than making peace with its imperfections — would be in anyone’s best interest. But to claim Canada is entirely without sin in the relationship is to succumb to simplistic anti-Trump contrarianism and absolve Ottawa from self-reflection on its own responsibilities to modernize economic relations with the United States.