As Canadian officials prepare for NAFTA talks, there is plenty of speculation around the negotiating style of US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
In his 2007 book Think Big, Donald Trump argued that in tough negotiations the United States government should rely on professionals from the private sector. Noting great deal makers are rare, “like gifted doctors and scientists,” he suggested America could solve a lot of its problems if it used its best negotiators.
Ten years later, and true to these beliefs, President Donald Trump has recruited an impressive array of private sector negotiators to his new administration. They include Wilbur Ross, whom Trump called “one of the greatest negotiators I have ever met — and that comes from me, the author of The Art of the Deal.”
Not surprisingly, the President has confirmed that Ross will help represent the US in the NAFTA renegotiations in his capacity as commerce secretary. (Ross has not disputed the idea that he will play a leading part, though he is always careful to note the statutory role of the US trade representative.)
With that in mind, and as Canadian officials begin to prepare for the NAFTA talks, among the important and unanswered questions is this one: What kind of negotiator will Ross be — a “butcher” or a “Baker”?
The image of Secretary Ross as a “butcher” has gained traction in recent weeks as he has outlined the Trump administration’s views on the future of NAFTA. In various public comments, Ross has appeared open to cleaving off parts of NAFTA, including its procurement and dispute resolution provisions. Ross has also said he wants to carve out other concessions from Canada: “The only question is what’s the magnitude, and what’s the form of the concessions.”
Yet if Canada approaches Secretary Ross as if he were a butcher, we risk cutting the heart out of NAFTA — an agreement that provides bilateral economic prosperity. The better alternative is to engage Ross as if he were a “Baker” — not the kind who makes bread, but rather the incomparable James A. Baker III.
According to such first-hand witnesses as former prime minister Brian Mulroney and former ambassadors Derek Burney and Gordon Ritchie, Baker played a key role during the original Canada-US free trade talks in the late 1980s. As treasury secretary and a former White House chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan, Baker was uniquely positioned to finalize the deal and finesse it through Congress.
Ritchie, Canada’s deputy chief negotiator for the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement (FTA), wrote in his 1997 memoirs, Wrestling with the Elephant, that Baker had the essential qualities needed to conclude a trade deal.
First, Baker’s relationship with the President made him a “power centre” who was known to be speaking with the authority of the Reagan White House. Second, Baker was a “consummately skillful strategist” who, in Ritchie’s words, “achieved the seemingly impossible on more than one occasion.” Finally, in Baker, Canada was at last “talking to someone who actually had a mandate to negotiate and the ability to deliver on his commitments.”
In his autobiography, Work Hard, Study…and Keep Out of Politics (2006), Baker credits his success in the talks to his careful gauging of opinions in Congress and to “cultivating bipartisan support from friends of free trade on Capitol Hill.” Believing “successful negotiation requires a sense of political limits,” Baker wrote that he also had to “educate myself on the political constraints faced by the Canadians.”
Wilbur Ross shares many of the assets and attributes that Jim Baker possessed during the original FTA negotiations, including a direct line to the Oval Office. Fortuitously, Ross also has a solid relationship with Brian Mulroney, who recently briefed Prime Minister Trudeau’s cabinet on Canada-US relations. While Ross may not have Baker’s strong political contacts in Congress, his Senate confirmation did pass with bipartisan support, including the votes of 21 Democrats.
All this is to say that Wilbur Ross has the ability to approach the NAFTA renegotiations as either a butcher or a Baker — a deal breaker or a deal maker. Canada should have a clear preference. To that end, much may depend on how we seek to work with Ross as the talks get under way.
Of course, without clear signals from the Secretary as to which direction he’ll take, Canadians are left to read the proverbial tea leaves and seize on any small signs of hope. When even benign signals can be reassuring, one might even take solace in otherwise trivial things such as who US Vice-President Mike Pence sat with at the Super Bowl. It was Jim Baker.
** This piece was originally published on the Policy Options website on April 28, 2017.