David Frum on Canada-U.S. Relations

David Frum answers a few questions leading up to the Risk Management Conference.

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david-frum-hires4 As a speaker at this summer’s Risk Management Conference at the JW Marriott The Rosseau Muskoka Resort and Spa in Minett, ON, (August 16 to 18), David Frum, senior editor, at The Atlantic, and a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, will speak on the outlook for Canada under the Trump administration.

In advance of the conference, we asked David a few questions about how personalities affect international relations, the underlying logic of Trump’s manoeuvres and the influence of his business-friendly cabinet on policy.

Brian Mulroney famously had a warm relationship with Ronald Reagan, but other prime ministers have had rather colder dealings. How important is personal rapport in the Canada-U.S. relationship?

The importance of personal rapport is greatly overrated. In normal life, we get along with people and that enables us to work together. In political life, people are obliged to work together and therefore they get along. The Canada-U.S. relationship moves within a narrow band.

At the most strategic level, rapport makes a difference at the margin. However, with Donald Trump, the usual rule has to be bracketed because Trump, more than most politicians, is driven by emotion, and driven by ego needs. With him, it is the case that he will do terrible damage to what you would think are his strategic interests if his feelings are in any way bruised.

Witness what’s happening with the U.S.-German relationship. Meanwhile, if he’s flattered, the relationship can suddenly become a lot closer, as happened in Saudi Arabia.

I think the government in Ottawa is very aware of these facts and, to put it bluntly, I think Justin Trudeau has eaten a lot of toads for his country in making the relationship work as well as it can with such an unpredictable personality as Donald Trump is.

We’re now in the fifth iteration of the softwood lumber dispute. Are these disputes amendable to the “art of the deal,” or are they emblematic of deeper impediments?

The U.S.-Canada relationship is now approaching the $1 trillion mark. A lot of the difficulties in the relationship, as spectacular as they can be, are comparatively small. They are amenable to management as between reasonable people. I don’t think softwood lumber will ever be solved, but it can be managed. NAFTA is very popular in Congress, it has broad support though American business. Donald Trump’s ability to do massive damage to it is probably limited. But his ability to inflict capricious harassment is very large.

What we have also seen is that sometimes a president’s attitude can communicate itself through the bureaucracy without a direct order. So we’ve seen, for example, customs and immigration officers becoming much more aggressive. You want an attitude from the top that says speeding lawful traffic is also part of your job. Right now, that’s absent. And as that attitude gets communicated, I think it also gets exaggerated.

Does Donald Trump have a conception of “fair trade”? Is there a principled and consistent logic to his approach?

If there is, I think it’s impossible to discern what it might be. Donald Trump has impulses, he has feelings, he has business interests, but he doesn’t seem to have policies as they are conventionally understood. Here’s a good example of how reckless his approach to trade is. The Trump administration has massively ramped up tensions in the Korean peninsula, hinting that it’s considering – it could be all bluff – but hinting that at the beginning of April they were quite seriously considering military options. If you’re considering military options in the Korean peninsula, your most important ally is South Korea, that’s where the troops are going to be arriving, it’s going to be bearing the brunt of anything that goes bad, it’s going to be feeding and housing the troops.

At that moment, Donald Trump announced that he wanted to junk the U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement. Who does that? I think that thinking of Donald Trump as a great dealmaker is like thinking of Benedict Cumberbatch as a great detective. It’s just a script.

But people do struggle to discover an underlying logic.

We have a deep human need to believe in an orderly and predictable universe and to believe that when people do something seemingly crazy, there must be some deep reason that we haven’t discovered yet. And we especially want to believe that when these are very powerful people. I think if you work on the assumption that Trump is motivated above all by vanity, in the next place by greed, and in the final place by his desire for food and sex, then you’ll be able to predict his actions better than some master plan.

Still, Donald Trump seems to have stacked his cabinet with business people. What influence do they have?

It does seem to be true that National Economic Council director Gary Cohn, the former CEO of Goldman Sachs, is emerging as a power in the White House. Rex Tillerson, the former head of Exxon, has been completely shouldered aside in foreign policy. And seems, for reasons that are hard to understand, absolutely willing to submit to this.

I think the financial people are powerful. The other business people are not. What is different about the Trump administration is that a number of the financial people, like Wilbur Ross at Commerce, have rather dodgy histories.

That raises the prospect that you’re dealing with a bunch of cowboys. 

You’re dealing with a chaotic administration. We’re speaking at the end of May. There’s not a single piece of important legislation that’s passed through Congress. I don’t think anybody takes seriously the repeal of Obamacare that passed through the House with three votes. That bill is as if it never happened because the Senate is taking it from zero. There’s no tax plan in sight. There has been some regulatory relief, and some of it is very welcome.

What is striking is that, in terms of specific regulations, they’ve been strangely passive, and now we’re five months into this administration. The problem with these things – you may say there’s a lot of time left – the problem with these things is the longer you go, the harder it is to touch them because what has happened is that some people affected by these regulations have gone and spent money to comply with them. And if you say, oops, we’re going to forget the whole thing, the early birds will say “what are you talking about? We’re the good corporate citizens, we spent a lot of money to comply and now the bad corporate citizens are going to get of scot-free? I don’t think so.”

So you develop momentum where the people who didn’t like the regulation in the first place but complied with it early become a lobby to enforce the regulation on everybody.


To learn more about Risk Management Conference, please visit the conferences section of the CIR website. If you are interested in attending this event, please email Alison.Webb@tc.tc to be considered, as limited space is available.

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