PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made an impassioned defense of free trade here Friday, appealing to the nation’s governors to help spread a positive message ahead of the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement demanded by President Trump.
Trudeau’s keynote speech marked the first time a foreign leader of Trudeau’s rank has addressed the National Governors Association. His appearance underscored the efforts by both Canada and Mexico to court state executives as potential allies at a time when the president’s trade rhetoric has raised doubts about the U.S. commitment to multinational free trade agreements.
Trudeau stressed that NAFTA has provided enormous benefits to all three countries and underscored his belief that the vitality of the relationship between the United States and Canada must be maintained through the coming negotiations.
“Sometimes getting it right means refusing to take the politically tempting shortcomings,” he warned. He cited such possible changes as new trade barriers, preferential provisions for local content or “homegrown players.” The consequences, he said, could be harmful to all parties, and he warned, “Once we travel down that road, it can quickly become a cycle of tit for tat, a race to the bottom where all sides lose.”
Trudeau was not the only representative of a foreign government at this week’s governors meeting. He was joined by several others from his administration as well as regional leaders. Mexico countered with a delegation of its own including Mexico City Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera, who also heads the organization Conago, a Mexican counterpart to the governors association. China and Japan also sent representatives.
The prime minister said Canada welcomes a renegotiation. “NAFTA isn’t perfect,” he said. “No such agreement ever is. We think it should be updated and modernized, as it has been a dozen times over the past quarter-century.” But he said he hopes the outcome would mean “a thinner border for trade, not a thicker one.”
Trudeau was asked by Gov. Brian Sandoval (R-Nev.), the incoming NGA chair, why he had chosen to appear at an NGA meeting. The Canadian made clear his motivation was the uncertainty surrounding the future of NAFTA under the Trump administration. “We reach out, we think and we plan,” he said, “and we thought this would be a great opportunity to step up our engagement with all levels.”
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), the outgoing NGA chairman, pushed to enlarge the attendance by leaders of other countries. He was explicit that, given the climate in Washington toward trade agreements, other nations should come directly to the states. “We will do business with you,” McAuliffe said.
Trump promised during the campaign to either repeal or renegotiate NAFTA. Earlier this year, aides signaled he was preparing to abrogate, but after phone calls from Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, both of whom implored the president not to take such a drastic step, he pulled back and agreed to a renegotiation.
Trudeau reminded his audience the U.S.-Canadian trade relationship dwarfs that of all others with whom the United States does business.
Trudeau noted two-thirds of the states count Canada as either their first- or second-most important trade partner.
“Canada is the U.S.’s biggest, best customer by far,” he said — bigger than China, Japan or the United Kingdom. “No one even comes close,” Trudeau said.
As a candidate, Trump repeatedly called NAFTA one of the worst trade agreements in the history of the country.
More of Trump’s attacks during the campaign were aimed at Mexico than Canada. But in office, trade wars with Canada have flared over dairy and lumber, and the president has been outspoken in his criticism.
Vice President Pence spoke just before Trudeau, devoting most of his talk to a defense of the Senate health-care bill. But Pence sounded a more positive tone about the coming NAFTA negotiations than Trump.
“We will modernize NAFTA for the 21st century so it is a win-win-win for all of our trading partners in north America,” Pence said.