One of the ironies of the presidency is that history often forces the people elected to that job to focus on interests or create change that they never envisioned – sometimes in areas where they least imagined. Lyndon Johnson imagined himself achieving immortality as the greatest domestic chief executive but was increasingly distracted, then obsessed, then engulfed by the Vietnam War. Who would have imagined that Ronald Reagan would be sitting down with the Soviets and beginning the end of the Cold War when he first entered office and the doctrine of containment appeared to be the only foreign policy paradigm available to him?
Let me suggest the same phenomenon is efflorescent for President-elect Donald Trump: before he is even inaugurated. Not that he is going to have his presidency severely handicapped by an overseas war that seems beyond resolution and not that he is going to bring Islamic extremism to its knees in the next four years.
But he is already having an influence in the area of trade and defence around the world. For the man who ran a campaign to “Make America Great Again” might provide both the inspiration and impetus to make other sagging Western powers great again.
The weekend visit of UK Independence Party interim leader Nigel Farage might not have made headlines in the U.S. but it certainly has in Britain. Farage doesn’t even have a seat in the British House of Commons and leads a party of one Member of Parliament, but he campaigned for Donald Trump. Farage was a key figure in the Brexit movement that won an historic referendum last summer to lead the UK out of the European Union. For Donald Trump it was an omen of his own destiny and he compared the Brexit coalition of dispossessed blue collar workers and anti-establishment conservatives to the angry yet determined supporters who turned out in the tens of thousands to his rallies across America to shout themselves hoarse chanting “build the wall.”
Farage’s visit with Trump has divided the ruling Conservative Party in Britain; many cabinet members looked at Trump and his following with complete disdain and disavowed his populist rhetoric in the same fashion and with the same phrases as the mainstream media in the U.S. But others are looking to Trump not with regret but with hope. Other government members are suggesting that this is a ideal opportunity for the UK to join the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Don’t laugh. This very notion was advanced by non other than ardent Trump supporter and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1998 and endorsed by British prime minister and conservative icon Margaret Thatcher.
It is evident that Trump’s real problem with NAFTA is that it favored Mexico and provided unfair trade advantages that resulted in devastating job losses. But Canada is also a member of NAFTA but Trump has never decried that trade relationship. The reason: Canada-U.S. trade is both free and fair. In fact, NAFTA supports 9 million American jobs and 34 different states are reliant on this treaty – as far as the Canadian connection is concerned.
Why does NAFTA work going north but not going south? The primary reason is that the economies and the political systems of the U.S. and Canada are essentially the same so it is a level playing field – unlike Mexico where the labor is cheap and the government has traditionally been for sale. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who just a few months ago was lauded by President Barack Obama as the “progressive torchbearer” has already said that his government is prepared to unpack NAFTA and renegotiate. So much for all this fear and loathing of Trump and suggestions that reopening NAFTA would be akin to careening off a trade cliff.
Introducing Britain to this mix not engender any dislocation either.
I predict that Trump will have a similar affect on NATO. Instead of endangering the alliance, his observations that the U.S. is paying far too much of the bill might actually encourage – perhaps actually force – some of the deadbeat members to start spending more on their national defence and their contribution to NATO – which is supposed to be 2 per cent of the GDP.
So the profound but pleasant irony of a Trump presidency might already be unfolding before our eyes. Here is a man who talked about America first and for Democrats and NeverTrumpers set a reckless isolationist course that would undercut American trade and undermine U.S. security. The result might still be America first but not without enhancing, not subverting, our trade agreements and defensive alliances.
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