Brian Mulroney: Father of Hemispheric Trade

The story of the US-Canada Free Trade Agreement and Brian Mulroney’s role in it says much about how much both countries – and the right wing that Mulroney once represented – have changed.


Image Source: Ronald Reagan Library.

Canadians bade farewell to a former prime minister, Brian Mulroney, last Saturday. Mulroney died on 29 February in Palm Beach, Florida. His death in the United States is perhaps fitting, as no prime minister did more to bring Canada and the United States closer together than did Mulroney.  

Mulroney came to office as one of the country’s youngest prime ministers, his energy and charm helping end twenty years of Liberal rule. He had two great ambitions: to sign a free trade agreement with the United States and to bring Quebec into Confederation (the francophone province had not signed the 1982 Constitution and was therefore – on paper at least – left out of the Canadian federation).

It turns out that both these ambitions would be hard sells. Canadians, aware of the disparity in size and influence between the two countries’ economies, had a long history of economic nationalism. Indeed, it was after the United States pulled out of an existing trade agreement, the Reciprocity Treaty, that the provinces of British North America integrated themselves further, forming Canada in 1867. Post-Reciprocity, the new country would implement a more protectionist approach, the National Policy. But the importance of the U.S. economy started weakening Canadian protectionism by the 1940s, and the Auto Pact of the 1960s, which integrated the North American auto industry, watered down the mutual suspicion even further. By the 70s, some Canadian economists began pushing for a more open policy. Shortly after being elected, Mulroney approached the Reagan administration, and the two countries negotiated an agreement that was as much about access to markets as it was about reducing tariffs. Even so, domestic opposition in Canada was very strong, and the prime minister decided to roll the dice, calling an election on the issue in 1988. Mulroney won, and the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement came into effect in 1989. For Canada, free trade has not lived up to some of the hype in terms of growth or productivity, and may have had a negative impact in terms of employment, especially during the adjustment period of the early 1990s. However, the FTA would not only be the precursor to today’s USMCA but really set in motion the global trade liberalization of the 1990s.

The story of the US-Canada Free Trade Agreement and Brian Mulroney’s role in it says much about how much both countries – and the right wing that Mulroney once represented – have changed. Where Mulroney’s right was the vanguard for economic globalization, today’s right in the U.S. and elsewhere flirts openly with protectionism. Today the right is suspicious of environmental protection; Mulroney championed the Acid Rain Air Quality Agreement, aimed at reducing the sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions that contribute to acid rain – a pollutant that does not recognize borders. Today those who call themselves conservatives dislike immigration; under Mulroney immigration increased about two and a half times. Today the parties of the right often look the other way as countries become more authoritarian; Mulroney spearheaded the fight against apartheid, even if it meant butting heads with like-minded leaders like Margaret Thatcher.

No leader is perfect. Mulroney’s term was tainted by corruption scandals, and his efforts to bring Quebec into Confederation – the so-called Meech Lake Accords – were a dismal failure. Many of his policies, and his obsession with the constitutional negotiations, alienated Canada’s western provinces, leading to the emergence of a new movement that dominates today’s Conservative Party (it is no coincidence that in 2003 the party dropped the “Progressive” from its name). By the time he stepped down in 1993, Mulroney was spectacularly unpopular. But in later years he reappeared as an elder statesman, advising Justin Trudeau and even quietly lobbying Donald Trump to sign on to the USMCA.  Once again, the former prime minister was doing what he did best: using his charms to promote trade in the Americas.

Robert Funk is Global Americans’ Vice President for Policy. In addition to this role, he serves as an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chile and a partner at Andes Risk Group, a consulting firm.

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