Author is Michael Coates, president and CEO of Hill+Knowlton Strategies Americas.
This article was first published on the Huffington Post.
As a Canadian working in the United States, I am often asked by other Canadians to provide my perspective on the current U.S. presidential primaries. Those watching from afar, glued to CNN, Fox News or MSNBC, are hungry to hear how things look and feel ‘on the ground’ in places like Washington, New York, Texas, Florida and California.
Without question, this is the most fascinating election campaign in recent political memory – with a combustible mix of colourful personalities, contentious debates and controversial ideas that make for captivating viewing. There is many a night that I have fallen asleep watching the latest primary results.
No one is more fascinating in this campaign than Donald Trump, now the presumptive Republican candidate. Hardened political activists on both sides of the border are stunned that such a bombastic bully would be taken seriously by so many voters. And yes, a few of my American colleagues have semi-seriously asked about moving to Canada. After years of indifference from our southern neighbors, Americans have a newfound interest in Canada. For many, Justin Trudeau is now the epitome of a leader of a progressive country.
The popular “Canada for President” video on YouTube is but one example of how Canadians seem to be feeling a bit smug about this turn of events. But enjoy the feeling of superiority for now, because it won’t last long, not least because our success as a country is dependent on the United States in many important ways. So while it is fun to have a little laugh about the elections from afar, the U.S. situation affects us more than we may be comfortable acknowledging.
Without U.S. trade and investment, the Canadian economy could not sustain our health care system or any of the myriad other social benefits we take for granted every day. According to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Canada sold more than USD$354 billion of goods and services to the United States in 2012 and U.S. direct investment in Canada was more than USD$351.5 billion. If Mr. Trump is elected and carries through on his pledge to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, Canada’s privileged position will be threatened.
Canada also benefits directly from the more than USD$600 billion the U.S. spends on its military each year, which allows Canada to spend less than CDN$20 billion per year on ours. If U.S. taxpayers voted for significant reductions in defence spending to fund universal health care – as Bernie Sanders would have it – we would have to pick up some of the slack. We’d also have to spend more on defence if Mr. Trump wins and insists that Canada pay its fair share of costs.
Regardless of who wins the 2016 presidential election, a fundamental shift is occurring about America’s place in the world, which will constrain the next administration whether Democrats or Republicans. Support for trade liberalization may be dead for at least a decade and many Americans are no longer prepared to fund “world peace” like they were once. While these protectionist and isolationist forces are not new – they have reoccurred every few generations since the republic was established – the world will soon be impacted by the consequences.
Polls today suggest Mr. Trump is trailing Hillary Clinton and Senator Sanders in a head-to-head contest, but there is still a long way to go before the actual vote in November. And while I have no doubt that Mr. Trump’s views do not represent the vast cross-section of American society, politics is a strange profession, where a tragic incident of terrorism or a democratic scandal in the middle of the campaign could turn the unlikely into the likely.
During this election season, we would be wise to think of our bilateral relationship with the United States in familiar and familial terms – two neighbors living side by side, each with an interest in each other’s success. Remember, the best reason to be a good neighbour is simply this: No matter what happens tomorrow, you still have to live next to them the day after.