OTTAWA – North America’s three political leaders presented a united front Wednesday against the mounting perils of protectionism — but it was U.S. President Barack Obama who stole the show with a pointed attack on Donald Trump.
Obama, along with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, said it would be a mistake for the continent to shut itself off from an integrated global economy.
The three leaders gathered to trumpet deeper continental integration and showcase new initiatives on battling climate change and working towards cleaner energy sources. But they had to confront Trump’s dramatic denunciation of the North American Free Trade Agreement and Britain’s stunning decision to leave the European Union.
On Tuesday, Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, delivered his most explicit threat to smash NAFTA.
Obama acknowledged that the critics of free trade have legitimate arguments about how prosperity flows to too few of their fellow citizens, who aren’t sharing the wealth and are seeing their wages flat line.
Still, Obama said, “the prescription of withdrawing from trade deals and focusing on solely on your local market — that’s the wrong medicine.” He argued for fairer trade in an interconnected world.
Obama said it’s too late to try to prevent the integration of national economies into a single global entity, because it has already happened.
“The question is not whether or not there’s going to be an international, global economy — there is one,” the president said. “Under what terms are we going to shape that economy?”
Trudeau said it proved to be one of the key themes of the North American Leaders’ Summit, to highlight how trade and international agreements are good for global economy and for people around the world.
“Always there will be people trying to get us all to turn inwards but the fact is our world is interconnected in so many ways that it is much better that we engage, that we work through our challenges together.”
Countries that export more of their goods to markets around the world are wealthier, and citizens are able to share in that growth, Trudeau said.
Obama, however, was responsible for the highlight of the news conference, using the closing moments of the leaders’ joint press conference to launch into a stinging attack on Trump, without naming him directly.
Obama bristled at the suggestion that Trump’s anti-trade and anti-immigration rhetoric is somehow representative of a form of “populism.”
“Somebody else who has never showed any regard for workers, has never fought on behalf of social justice issues, or making sure that poor kids are getting a decent shot at life or have health care … they don’t suddenly become a populist because they say something controversial in order to win votes,” said Obama.
“That’s not the measure of populism. That’s nativism or xenophobia — or worse. Or it’s just cynicism.”
Obama also tried to shield Trudeau and Pena Nieto from a reporter’s question that wanted them to take a tougher stand against Trump. Trudeau offered his same boilerplate response that he’ll work with whichever candidate American voters send to the White House.
But Pena Nieto delved in, saying in Spanish that in today’s world “we have political leaders, political stakeholders that use demagoguery and have populistic slogans that want to eliminate and destroy what has been built.” For good measure, he added: “Hitler and Mussolini did that and the outcome, it is clear to everyone … It turned out to be a tragedy for mankind.”
At an earlier meeting with Obama, Pena Nieto offered another sharp rebuke of the protectionist forces north of his country’s border and in Britain.
“The world is teaching us lessons,” Pena Nieto said.
“We need to be very clear in terms of describing the benefits of being an integrated region. Jobs are created, companies are incorporated, trade is free and more development can reach people due to regional integration. Isolationism is not a route towards progress; integration is.”
He said the Obama administration and his government have stressed “the importance and the relevance that working as a team” and standing together.
Obama praised the U.S. relationship with Mexico on a number of fronts, including their shared membership in the 12-country Pacific Rim trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which also includes Canada.
“All too often hearing rhetoric that ignores the enormous contributions … by Mexican-Americans and the enormous strengths that we draw from the relationship with our good neighbour to the south,” Obama said.
Trump also made it clear Tuesday he’s no fan of the TPP either, calling it “a continuing rape of our country.”
Trump said he would inform Mexico and Canada of his desire to immediately renegotiate a more favourable deal and if they refused significant concessions, he threatened to withdraw from it all together.