The NAFTA trade negotiations currently underway between the US and Canada are a perfect microcosm of what it means to deal with the American government in the age of Trump. Not because of the politics: because of the people. I’m talking about the folks gathered around the negotiation table, or rather, facing off across it.
On the one side you’ve got Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s Foreign Affairs minister. If you’re going to hand someone the job of negotiating your country’s economic future, Freeland is the kind of person you want: a brilliant, experienced and articulate leader with decades of work attesting to her expertise and credibility. She’s a Rhodes scholar, a celebrated journalist and the author of two readable, prize-winning books about the international economic order; if you want to understand the world the Trumps inhabit, you would do well to read her book, Plutocrats, a New York Times bestseller. The one time I was in a room with Freeland, at an international policy conference seven years ago, her dynamism and intellect lit up a room full of dry bureaucrats and left little doubt as to her star power.
And who does Trump send in to do business with Freeland, a woman long accustomed to sitting down with global powerhouses like former World Bank president Robert Zoellick or international mogul George Soros?
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He sends in cronies—not statesmen.
Inside the room we have Robert Lighthizer, appointed Trump’s US Trade Representative in mid-2017. A lawyer, Lighthizer spent the early years of his career as a Republican staffer, moving up to the position of Deputy US Trade Representative in the Reagan administration. He soon joined the proud tradition of free marketeers who treat public service as a way station on the road to private sector riches, leaving his government job for the law firm where he honed his protectionist credentials by representing industry clients like U.S. Steel. His years as an anti-tariff street fighter made him the perfect guy to prosecute Trump’s assault on the longstanding balance between US, Canadian and Mexican trading interests. It’s Lighthizer who shunted Canada to the sidelines while revisiting NAFTA with his Mexican counterparts — a move that hardly endeared him to his future Canadian negotiating partner.
These are supposed to be closed-door negotiations, but this wouldn’t be Team Trump if the players stuck to their own rules.
"It’s hardly the first time a brilliant, qualified woman has been told to treat some inexperienced white guy as her equal," @awsamuel writes about @cafreeland situation in #NAFTA negotiations
So outside the room we have Larry Kudlow, Trump’s economic adviser, playing the role usually occupied by Trump’s tweets: undercutting private negotiations with public commentary. Late last week Kudlow played to the Fox News crowd by announcing that the NAFTA deal comes down to Canadians’ willingness to accept American M-I-L-K. (Perhaps he spelled it out in the hope that Canadians would be unable to crack his super secret code.) While I’m all for extending the range of Ben & Jerry’s flavors available north of the 49th, Kudlow’s side show only makes it harder for Canada and the US to come to terms, since his outburst means that opposition critics can now cast any changes on dairy imports as Freeland caving before Trump’s awesome power.
And then there’s Jared. Every day is Take-Your-Son-in-Law-to-Work day when you’re in the Trump administration, so of course the logical person to handle the economic future of North America is a guy whose professional experience consists of buying and selling real estate with his parents’ money. It’s hardly the first time a brilliant, qualified woman has been told to treat some inexperienced white guy as her equal. But I like to imagine that Jared’s stint in the hallway gave Freeland a break from an internal monologue that surely consists of asking, WHY am I sitting down with this guy?
Sending men like these to do business with a powerhouse like Freeland is downright insulting — but then, just about every Trump administration official looks like a toddler when compared to the statesmen, career civil servants and rock star politicians who usually populate international negotiations. Most countries and political systems elevate leaders based on intelligence, talent or at the very least, ambition; in the Trump world, the secrets of success appear to be greed and unquestioning loyalty. The result is a world stage on which America is at a perpetual disadvantage, because her representatives are outclassed and outsmarted the moment they walk into a room.
Sadly, however, that talent gap is no guarantee that Freeland — or Canada — will prevail at the negotiation table. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the past 20 months of American Horror Story: Presidential Edition, it’s that smarts have little to do with policy-making in the age of Trump.
Canada, like other nations around the world, may continue to send superstars like Freeland to do what they can with Trump’s crew of dilettantes and kleptocrats. But in an administration that brands intellect as elitism and experience as corruption, the best the world has to offer is simply more cannon fodder for Trump’s war on the very notion of international cooperation.
That doesn't mean that brains or talent are now moot in the international arena. Indeed, the more that America drifts into willful isolationism, the more that Canada will need to cultivate its relationships with other nations: nations that still respect able leadership, with diplomats who actually deserve to sit across the table from someone like Chrystia Freeland.