The Trudeau government believes that it’s in a relatively benign moment of its complicated relationship with the Trump administration, with both sides pulling in the same direction on ratification of the agreement called the new NAFTA (and with the U.S. in the midst of disputes with other countries like China, Iran and Mexico).
That helps explain the size of the delegation that’s in Washington today, and the breadth of topics up for discussion. Government sources tell CBC News they are interested in talking about the fundamentals of the U.S.-Canada relationship again, after three years focused on the minutiae of trade.
That doesn’t mean trade isn’t top of the agenda.
U.S. President Donald Trump wants to see the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) ratified before Congress rises for its summer recess. The Trudeau government wants the same thing to happen in Ottawa for the agreement it calls the Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement, or CUSMA.
And there are still trade irritants that Canadian officials want to raise, including the perennial softwood lumber dispute and more recent threats to put tariffs on Canadian uranium.
Hostages in China
Earlier this month in Ottawa, U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence called on China to release Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, two Canadians being held there. Canada considers their detention an illegitimate attempt to pressure this country to release Huawei executive Meng Wangzhou, whose extradition is sought by U.S. authorities.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also said the words Canadian officials want to hear about the case. But Canada would really like those same words to trip from the tongue of Trump himself. If that happens, they will judge this trip a success on the China front.
The poor state of U.S.-Chinese relations gives reason to hope that it may. In recent weeks some Canadian officials, speaking off the record, have expressed a new level of frustration with China’s actions, hinting that Canada is open to a more confrontational approach to Beijing.
Those sources say China’s troubling behaviour is not limited to grabbing international hostages, but also manifests in China’s relations with its neighbours, its military activities in the South China Sea and its approach to Hong Kong’s special status. Essentially, they see China as throwing its weight around more than ever, and more openly violating norms the West once hoped it might come to adopt.
Key figures at the table
The White House talks will include both a meeting in the Oval Office and then an “extended lunch meeting” involving some of the key figures in each government.
On the Canadian side of the table will be Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, Finance Minister Bill Morneau, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Canadian Ambassador David MacNaughton as well as his deputy Kirsten Hillman. Also present will be senior PMO officials Katie Telford, Ben Chin and Brian Clow, point person for U.S.-Canada relations.
For the U.S., both Trump and Pence will be at the table, as well as Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft, who faced a harsh confirmation hearing on Wednesday that focused on her lengthy absences from her post in Ottawa, will also be there. So will outgoing communications director Sarah Sanders, who is set to leave the White House at the end of the month after a controversial and confrontational tenure, and the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, whom the Canadians have come to see as a voice of reason within the administration.
Defence and security
Canada wants to discuss the North American security/defence relationship, including intelligence-sharing and strategic threats. So the national security advisers for both countries will be at the table: John Bolton for the U.S. and Greta Bossenmaier for Canada.
Sajjan will be the only Canadian minister without a direct counterpart to talk to. Acting U.S. Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan earlier this week withdrew his nomination to be confirmed in that role, and resigned from his former post as deputy secretary. He won’t be there.
Neither will the White House official who once said there was “a special place in hell” for Trudeau, Director of Trade Policy Peter Navarro. Navarro, who was forced to apologize, will be out of sight.
But U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer will be at the table with his old nemesis, Freeland.
Clock ticking on the Hill
On Wednesday, Lighthizer was on Capitol Hill pleading with the House ways and means committee to expedite the ratification of the USMCA. Only 14 sitting days remain in the House calendar before the August recess (there are more days in the Senate calendar, but the Senate is not where the obstacles are).
Trudeau will add his voice to that lobbying effort when he leaves the White House and heads down Pennsylvania Avenue to the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
As he prepared to depart Ottawa on Wednesday, he said, “There’ll be a big conversation about the path of ratification of the new NAFTA, and we’re going to make sure that we’re keeping in step with them. We have an ability to recall Parliament if we need to. We will also make sure that we’re monitoring the pace at which the Americans are ratifying the process.”
Pelosi is expected to cough up for losing her wager with Trudeau on the NBA Finals, when the Toronto Raptors defeated the Golden State Warriors. She owes him a basket of Ghirardelli chocolates from San Francisco, California wine and a selection of California almonds and walnuts.
But what the Canadian contingent really wants from Pelosi is a bigger effort to move her Democratic caucus toward ratification of the free trade deal.
Mexico gives a boost
That effort received a boost when Mexico’s senate ratified the deal just as Trudeau’s jet was starting its engines for the flight to Washington, thereby becoming the first legislature to do so.
But many Democrats remain skeptical, particularly about whether Mexico will enforce the new provisions it agreed to on wages and labour conditions designed to level the playing field between the three labour markets.
Lighthizer raised eyebrows on Wednesday when he seemed to suggest that the signed deal could be reopened to mollify some of the concerns expressed by members of Congress. He told them it might be possible to “plus up” some of the enforcement mechanisms of the new deal to ensure that Mexico and Canada don’t skirt their obligations.
Canada was not consulted about those remarks, and one Canadian official told CBC News that Ottawa has little idea what Lighthizer is talking about.
As far as Canada is concerned, the new enforcement mechanisms are far more stringent than anything in the original NAFTA. The deal is already signed, say the Canadians. Now it’s about ratifying it, not rewriting it.