When candidates talk, they just don’t speak to the audience at hand, but to audiences in Canada, Israel and across the world. In an era of instantaneous global communications, what’s said in one place never stays in one place, as Reginald Dale relates.

In one of the strangest episodes of the U.S. election campaign, Sen. John McCain, the presumed Republican presidential nominee, has come under heavy fire for daring to talk about trade in Canada. More specifically, McCain supported the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in a speech in Ottawa in June. How on earth, his critics asked, could he do such a dastardly thing? Why was he explaining his subversive views to foreigners and not to the long-suffering citizens of Michigan and Ohio? Hostile commentators in the blogosphere scathingly asked whether McCain was running for President of Canada and how many votes Canada had in the U.S. Electoral College.
Well, let’s supply some fairly obvious answers. First of all, U.S. prosperity and the jobs it brings depend on trade, and Canada is America’s top trading partner. At a time when so many politicians are frantically urging an end to U.S. dependence on Middle East oil, it is worth remembering that Canada is the biggest supplier of energy, in the form of oil and natural gas, to the U.S. market. With massive oil sands deposits in Alberta, Canada is the world’s second biggest holder of proven petroleum reserves after Saudi Arabia.

To look at it another way, Canada is a larger market for U.S. goods than all 27 countries of the European Union combined, even though their population is more than 15 times that of Canada. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the two-way trade that crosses the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, equals all U.S. exports to Japan. Canada is the top export market for 36 of the 50 U.S. states and ranks in the top three for another 10 states. And, Oh yes, I almost forgot, Canada is a member of NAFTA. If Americans can’t talk about trade to Canada, who can they talk to about it except themselves?

That, of course, is the problem. Trade is by definition a two-way street. But far too many people believe that U.S. trade agreements are meant to benefit only Americans and not the other partner or partners as well. They think the only point is to promote American exports, not American imports – even though imports provide huge numbers of American jobs, sharpen the competitiveness of U.S. enterprises, and often keep inflation down. And they think that if there are any unpleasant side effects from freer trade, it is up to the other party, or the U.S. government, to fix them right away. If Americans only talk to themselves about trade, they are likely to consider only their own narrow interests and embrace the dangerous fallacy that they can protect themselves from the undesirable aspects of trade – and there certainly are some – by taking unilateral action or withdrawing from markets.

This is the kind of thinking behind the suggestion that McCain should have been talking to the people of Michigan and Ohio about NAFTA, instead of holding forth in Ottawa. It is hard to take such arguments seriously. In the first place, McCain can be sure that his critics will relay his free-trade views to the people of those states, where a visceral, though ill-informed opposition to NAFTA runs strong, whether he is speaking in Detroit, Ottawa or Beijing. Even if they don’t, the people of Michigan and Ohio are unlikely to miss what McCain says in the Canadian capital, which is closer to many of them than New York City. But the main point is that in modern election campaigns, it is more difficult than ever before for politicians to limit their comments to a single audience without anyone else noticing. To take another example, remarks by McCain and his Democratic rival, Barack Obama, to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in Washington in June were immediately beamed throughout the Middle East. Pandering becomes more difficult, and more politically hazardous, when everybody is listening all the time.

This is an aspect of modern political campaigns that office-seekers seem to have been slow to catch onto. They are happy to make maximum use of the Internet and the electronic media to round up supporters and tap new sources of campaign funds. But they still often appear unaware that the explosion of virtually instantaneous global communications means it is far harder to get away with saying one thing to one audience and another to people with a different set of interests.

And the fact that everybody is listening means that everybody is also likely to pick up what they want to hear, or what they can best use politically. Even if they are still listening when a candidate modifies an earlier statement, the listeners may have received a more powerful impression from the first one. If they hear, for example, that Obama wants to “tear up” NAFTA and renegotiate it, those words may be more likely to stick in their minds than his subsequent admission in a recent magazine interview that his anti-NAFTA rhetoric may have gotten “overheated and amplified” while campaigning before anti-NAFTA audiences.

The phenomenon is particularly dangerous when trade and foreign policy are concerned, because candidates often talk as if only Americans are listening, whereas the impressions of people outside the United States are obviously key to the achievement of U.S. trade and other foreign objectives. Palestinians and Canadians aren’t likely to get worked up about U.S. campaign pledges on secondary education or social security. But they will react strongly to plans for future U.S. policy toward, respectively, Israel and NAFTA.

In NAFTA’s case, many Americans seem to forget that solemn agreements cannot simply be “renegotiated” by one party. The same mistake is often made by Euroskeptic politicians in the UK, who pledge to “renegotiate” the terms of Britain’s EU membership, or by nationalistic Scots who want their country to leave the UK and strike a separate deal with the European Union. Both fail to take account of the likely reaction of the other parties to the agreement. Just like trade, negotiation is a two-way street. And negotiating experts will tell you that the best guarantee of success is to convince your partners that you share the same objectives. That is not achieved by demanding a new agreement for nationalistic, protectionist reasons, with little understanding of the agreement’s benefits – both to you and your partners.

Reginald Dale is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC and a former senior foreign correspondent, commentator and editor for the International Herald Tribune and the London Financial Times.


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