National Column: Trump is no buffoon when it comes to NATO and NAFTA

by Thomas Walkom

Two things should be kept in mind about Donald Trump. First, the U.S. president-elect is not going away.

Second, his critique of free trade and NATO is not entirely wrong.

If the polls are right, most Canadians find Trump repugnant. So do a majority of Americans. In his campaign for the presidency, he was a big mouth and bully.

He appealed to the worst instincts of the U.S. electorate. At times, his deliberately outrageous xenophobia veered into racism.

For these reasons, Trump critics hope desperately he can’t last. They point to the disarray in his transition team. They highlight the significant policy differences between Trump and the Republican legislators who control Congress.

The Internet is chockablock with predictions that he will be impeached.

All of this is wishful thinking. Trump may choose at times to act the buffoon, but he is not one. Nor is there anything in his history to suggest he will step back from governing and let experts run the shop.

Congressional Republicans may not like everything about him. But they will not lightly impeach the man who won them the White House.

What’s more, deal-maker Trump may be able to count on his political enemies. As the New York Times reported this week, Congressional Democrats plan to help Trump deliver on election promises that his fellow Republicans are likely to resist – including spending billions for infrastructure, penalizing companies that move jobs abroad and making paid-maternity leave mandatory.

So don’t assume Trump won’t last. Don’t assume he won’t be able to do much of what he promised. The White House press corps may be in a snit because Trump went out to dinner this week without telling them. I doubt he much cares.

The second thing to keep in mind about Trump is that parts of his critique are correct. Globalization and free trade – including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – have left too many stranded.

Such deals don’t account for everything that has gone wrong. But as the economy shifts increasingly toward precarious part-time work, they haven’t always helped either.

As intellectual-property expert Michael Geist wrote this week, the era of overarching trade and investment deals may be over. They are too complicated, too opaque and potentially too damaging.

New trade deals, he writes, should be less ambitious and, instead of trying to unify disparate national regulatory regimes, focus on tariff reduction alone.

Here’s one small example: According to press reports, Trump wants to reintroduce country-of-origin labelling to beef and pork imports from Canada. Ottawa is aghast, saying the move would penalize Canadian farmers.

But why shouldn’t Americans (and Canadians, for that matter) know where their food comes from? As this newspaper [Toronto Star] has reported, many Canadians want to buy ketchup made from Ontario tomatoes. Why shouldn’t the same courtesy be extended to those who eat meat?

Indeed, if Canadian beef and pork producers marketed their meat cannily, country-of-origin labelling could be an asset. Americans are willing to pay a premium for what they call Canadian (and we call peameal) bacon. Who knows what they might think about Canadian pork chops?

Finally, NATO. Trump is excoriated for daring to question the usefulness of the Atlantic alliance. But he’s not the first. It’s not that long since withdrawal from NATO was the official position of Canada’s New Democratic Party.

NATO was set up in 1949 to confront the old Soviet Union. After the Cold War ended, it morphed into an organization with no clear purpose. It is now treated as a counterweight to Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Is it? The alliance has refused NATO membership to former Soviet republic Ukraine, presumably because it doesn’t want the obligation of defending that country in any conflict with Russia. It is already obligated to defend other countries that were once part of the Soviet Union, such as Estonia.

But is it realistic to think the U.S. and its allies (including Canada) would wage nuclear war against Russia over tiny Estonia? It’s a question the Estonians ask themselves. It should come as no surprise that Trump is musing along similar lines.

Barack Obama, the current U.S. president, says Trump told him he wouldn’t pull the U.S. out of NATO. And maybe he won’t.

He may, however, try to rethink its long-term purpose. That’s not necessarily stupid.

Thomas Walkom appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Copyright 2016-Torstar Syndication Services

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