Wanted: Canada’s special trade representative

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March 8, 2017

Wanted: Canada’s special trade representative

Published in The Hill Times on March 8, 2017. Click here to read the original.

The ‘tweaking’ of the North American Free Trade Agreement is about to begin. President Donald Trump has unveiled his trade policy before Congress, and Peter Navarro, the director of the White House National Trade Council, has similarly outlined the administration’s trade priorities. With speculation that the Trump administration could formally notify Congress of its desire to renegotiate NAFTA as early as mid-March, talks will quickly move into the active phase.

Mexico is the best prepared of the three NAFTA partners. They have set out negotiating principles and objectives and are fully prepared, come what may. Canada has put into place a fully-integrated team approach, has also staked out offensive interests, and has successfully managed relations with the Trump administration to date. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, International Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne, and their extended Canada-U.S. cabinet team, political staff, departmental and embassy officials have set the pitch-perfect tone.

In the U.S., Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross have been confirmed. But now all eyes are on the confirmation of trade lawyer Robert Lighthizer as the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR). This politically-appointed hybrid cabinet-ambassadorial position heads the White House team responsible for all of the administration’s trade policy. USTR is an uber trade minister, laser focussed on negotiations and disputes. Canada also has world-class trade negotiators, but as we wait for the USTR to be confirmed, serious thought should be given as to whether we need our own version of a USTR—a so-called Canada Special Trade Representative (CSTR).

There are at least three lines of argument to support the serious consideration of a Canadian version of USTR. First, Minister Freeland’s mandated responsibility includes not only all of Canada’s foreign relations, but additionally all trade matters with the U.S. Minister Champagne plays a supporting role on Canada-U.S., but will be instrumental with Mexico and the great opportunity of free trade with China.

But both ministers will need a “buffer principal” in any NAFTA, China, or other negotiations in the same way that Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had with the late Simon Reisman as chief negotiator for the Canada-U.S. FTA, the precursor to NAFTA. Any number of Canada’s roster of current senior government officials, formal trade officials, business deal negotiators and/or leaders could be appointed as our CSTR. A CSTR position would give the Canada-U.S. war room architecture at the Prime Minister’s Office even more formal status, profile, and resources for such a mission-critical mandate.

Second, there is mandate-mismatch between Canada and the U.S. cabinet structures. Minister Freeland’s formal U.S. counterpart is Secretary of State Tillerson, and the Canadian counterpart of the U.S. Secretary of Commerce is in fact Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains. The USTR-designate would lead any NAFTA renegotiation, but Canada currently has no formal cabinet-level equivalent since Minister Champagne has ex-U.S. responsibility. Let us match USTR in terms of organizational parity and mandate symmetry with a CSTR position—fully-ensconced in the PMO.

Third, in Canada, the international trade officials in Global Affairs Canada play an interagency issue management role, but the sticky bits are resolved by PMO and the Privy Council Office. Canada’s pursuit of trade disputes is also handled through a comprehensive consultative approach both within the federal government, and externally with stakeholders such as provincial-territorial governments, the private sector, labour, and civil society. The negotiation of trade deals and the litigation of trade disputes are inextricably linked. A newly-created CSTR could help ensure a fully-integrated and coordinated approach between negotiation and litigation, in order to strengthen our ability to advance the national interest—not only with the U.S. and Mexico, but also with other key trading partners such as China.

Paul Moen is a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group, a trade lawyer, and a former senior policy advisor to minister of international trade Jim Peterson.