A chess game is unfolding in the world’s most prosperous trade relationship, one that appears for the time being to be stopping US President Donald Trump from pulling the trigger on NAFTA.

Some of the moves this week include a meeting between US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his Canadian counterpart in Vancouver to discuss the North Korean threat, and trade negotiators are heading to Montreal next week to discuss the future of NAFTA. Kelly Craft, the US ambassador to Canada, was in Vancouver and will be in Montreal.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump plans to speak at the World Economic Forum in Davos where he will no doubt tout his “America First” mindset, which is ironic given that the meeting has the title “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World.

Despite all of Trump’s previous anti-NAFTA rhetoric, he suggested in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal that he’s not tearing up NAFTA just yet. Among his comments during the interview on the trade negotiations: “We’re moving along nicely,” “There’s no rush,” “I’m leaving it a little flexible,” “We have a chance of making a reasonable deal,” and “We’ve made a lot of headway.”

Indeed, some of Trump’s most inflammatory rhetoric is often followed by much softer language.

Understanding this, and keeping a cool head, are hallmarks of the Canadian approach to its neighbour. I call it “strategic patience,” and it’s very much like the calm, measured, and deliberate approach to a game of chess that propels masters of the game to victory.

It’s strategic, because it resists the urge to counter-punch when Trump makes his more outrageous claims. And faced with negative and positive comments from the unpredictable 45th US president on a whole host of issues, patience has never been more important.

Patience is indeed essential in dealing with an overarching feature of the Trump administration ─ its aversion to the “business as usual” approach to global multilateral arrangements that, until now, were established norms. Gone are the polite understatements characteristic of diplomacy. The Davos theme of a shared future, in fact, seems like a direct rebuttal of the fractious nature of the Trump world view and style.

Before Trump, bilateral trade irritants were generally dealt with through NAFTA and the World Trade Organization. Not by threatening to “tear up the deal.”

Transatlantic peace and security issues were dealt with by NATO, not by calling into question the US commitment to honour its obligation to defend its allies, nor by suggesting that commitment should be based on whether a nation’s financial dues have been paid.

Global migration flows, and assessments of whether people are immigrants or refugees, were formally handled based on humanitarian needs. This was the true of the 200,000 El Salvadorans who came to the United States after the 2001 earthquake and are now being summarily kicked out by the Trump administration.

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The Canadian maple charm offensive, as we call it at the Canadian American Business Council, reacts to Trump the Disruptor by practising strategic patience. And Canadian officials are not just dealing solely with the administration. They’re reaching out routinely to key members of Congress, governors, mayors and Americans at large. Some days, however, there is probably an intense temptation to cast aside the charm and fight fire with fire. It would feel good in the moment. But, like many things that feel good in the moment, it’s not the sensible course.

An example of Canada’s strategic patience: At the recent Liberal cabinet retreat, Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s foreign affairs minister, called Trump’s Wall Street Journal remarks about NAFTA “sensible” and “constructive.” She added that Canada is ready to spend as much time as necessary to ensure there is a good deal.

After all, some global trade developments bode well for Canada.

The European Union and Japan just finalized the world’s biggest free-trade pact, covering a staggering 30 percent of global GDP.

The European Union is also racing toward a major overhaul of its 17-year-old trade deal with Mexico.

What’s more, 11 Asia-Pacific nations are moving forward with the next iteration of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), despite the Trump administration’s exit from that agreement.

Trump and his trade envoys may fall back on extreme anti-NAFTA bluster as the trade talks resume. It seems to be part of their play book. The trick for Canadian and Mexican negotiators is to stick to their strategic patience approach as they get deeper into the weeds of the talks.

The future health of all three countries’ economies depends on it.

Photo: Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chrystia Freeland greets Secretary of State of the United States, Rex Tillerson as Korean Foreign Affairs Minister Kang Kyung-wha looks on during the meeting on Security and Stability on the Korean Peninsula in Vancouver, B.C., Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

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Maryscott (Scotty) Greenwood
Maryscott (Scotty) Greenwood is a Washington-based specialist in Canada/US relations and a partner at Crestview Strategy. She is CEO of the Canadian American Business Council. As a former political appointee in the Clinton administration, Greenwood served as chief of staff at the US Embassy in Ottawa.

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