Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's complaint that his nation is being "harassed" by punitive U.S. trade restrictions is more than the cry of a politician in trouble. It reflects the widespread feeling on the part of our northern neighbor that Americans are dealing from a stacked deck in the way they go about implementing the three-year-old U.S.-Canadian free trade agreement. This is an issue that dominates political discussion in Canada and is virtually ignored in this country.
Specifically at issue are barriers Washington recently imposed on imports of Canadian soft-wood products because of allegedly unfair government subsidies and on Hondas because they allegedly do not have sufficient North American content.
No doubt there are two sides to these arguments. But what really irritates the Canadians is that when the cases go before a bilateral review panel, U.S. trade laws will prevail. This is just another example of American unilateralism that evokes charges of hypocrisy when Washington talks free trade and practices the opposite. The Bush administration is anti-protectionist in theory. But when implementing protectionist legislation passed by the Democratic-controlled Congress, it does not hesitate to use whatever weapons are available.
These are not arcane matters. The current U.S.-Canadian dispute could complicate negotiations on a three-nation North American Free Trade Agreement that would include Mexico. In addition, it is undercutting Mr. Mulroney's prospects for re-election next year. His defeat would be bad news for Mr. Bush -- assuming he wins a second term this November. The two men and their families are close friends. They agree on most global issues, although Mr. Mulroney at his Johns Hopkins commencement address yesterday came out for a moratorium on nuclear weapons testing -- a stand Mr. Bush rejects.
When the two men met at the White House the day earlier, they both played to their home constituencies. In unusually blunt language, Mr. Mulroney complained of an American "tendency to retaliate against Canadian products by threatening to impose demonstrably unfair penalties." He suggested that Washington gives in too often to special interests, thus "undermining the fundamental intent of the free-trade agreement." Mr. Bush, feeling protectionist pressure, said he would give trade disputes high-level attention but promised nothing.
Let us hope that despite their differences, the president and the prime minister can provide the leadership needed to achieve trade reforms for North America -- and the whole world.