Editor’s note: Canadian Consul General Nadia Theodore will join Mexican Consul General Javier Diaz de Leon and former U.S. Ambassador to Canada Gordon Giffin on March 21 to discuss NAFTA 2.0 and the implications for local companies. Learn more here.
In the six months she’s been on the job, Nadia Theodore has already traveled to each of the six Southern states in her territory. But that goal only took Canada’s Atlanta-based consul general six weeks to meet.
Why the rush with at least a four-year appointment on tap for the country’s top diplomat in the region? Even while settling into her new “Ottawa” in Atlanta, she started with the end in mind.
“My goal at the end of the day is to make sure that as we move forward with NAFTA, regardless of what happens, the elected officials in the Southeast feel like they have gotten the real story vis-a-vis Canada,” Ms. Theodore told Global Atlanta at a Feb. 22 Consular Conversation at the law offices of Miller & Martin PLLC.
“My goal at the end of the day is to make sure that, whatever happens, elected officials in the Southeast feel like they have gotten the real story.”
The interview took place just after the conclusion of the sixth round of talks on the 25-year-old trade agreement between the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
Afterward, each side pointed to progress closing certain chapters and expressed “cautious optimism” about the talks’ overall trajectory. But they were also uncharacteristically frank about the hurdles ahead.
Chief negotiator Steve Verheul of Canada reportedly suggested that his American counterparts “don’t come to the table with a lot of flexibility” given that U.S. trade policy seems to emanate from President Donald Trump.
Canada wants to remain open-minded, but proposed measures like a sunset clause and reciprocal procurement rules were non-starters, he said. Rules of origin on cars have also become a sticking point, especially now that the CP-TPP (the post-U.S. version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership) is in place.
For his part, Mr. Trump has threatened repeatedly to rip up NAFTA if the U.S. can’t get a “better deal.” Advocates, meanwhile, say losing it would sever supply chains that keep North American industry competitive with the world. One study said Georgia alone could lose more than 50,000 jobs if no NAFTA deal emerges.
Amid this climate — and in the region where U.S. manufacturing is growing most quickly — Canada sent Ms. Theodore, a representative that seems perfectly cast for the role. She’s an old hand in trade negotiations and a self-described “eternal optimist.” (Perhaps the two necessarily go hand-in-hand.)
In the interview, the consul general echoed some of Mr. Verheul’s concerns about the different “starting points” between the U.S. and its partners.
Canada’s approach is to “modernize” an agreement that is good at its core, if a bit outdated with regard to e-commerce and some other sections.
“For us that was always NAFTA’s goal — to make us the most powerful economic bloc in the world that was able to compete with anybody, no matter what they threw at us,” she said.
A more transactional approach has taken root under Mr. Trump.
“The U.S. has said very bluntly that their objective is ‘America First,’ and they are looking more so to roll back some of the benefits that other countries might have received and to bring those back to the United States.”
But that doesn’t meant the talks are doomed to fail, she said.
For one, the breakneck pace — designed in part to avoid running into 2018 presidential elections in Mexico and midterms the U.S. — hasn’t given negotiators the breathing room between rounds to bridge gaps. This could be changing, however, as the parties indicated after round six that they were prepared to dispense with arbitrary deadlines, she said.
Asked how prolonged uncertainty might affect business, Ms. Theodore said it’s more important to land on a good deal than a hasty one.
“It is very important for businesses not to fear that NAFTA will no longer exist one day all of a sudden — that they’ll wake up one day and NAFTA is no longer,” she said. “To me that is what creates the uncertainty, and that is what we need to avoid. But rushing through a negotiation is really not the best way to succeed.”
Behind the Scenes of Trade Talks
Ms. Theodore would know. She has seen the proverbial sausage being made at the highest levels as deputy chief negotiator for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and late in the game with the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), deals that took six and 10 years to hammer out, respectively.
One of her most satisfying achievements at the World Trade Organization in Geneva includes persuading APEC members to sign a deal governing trade in environmental services and products. That would lay the groundwork for similar provisions in the TPP.
While she wasn’t in Atlanta when that 12-nation trade deal was finalized in October 2015, she was watching from the office of then-Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. She’d been “voluntold” to stay behind to brief him as down-to-the-wire talks unfolded.
Needless to say, coming to Atlanta — a city in a region she’d never even visited — was a bit off-script for someone accustomed to traveling the world to sit across from fellow negotiators, as she did while the TPP discussions dragged on.
Closed-door discussions at the WTO and beyond often start at a tables with various working groups laying out their objectives, then eventually tabling text that gets shaped over time as common ground is found. The current NAFTA talks are up to 25 tables, she said.
The tenor of the talks can often depend on the personal relationships between negotiators; rapport is important when you’re going two weeks on, four weeks off in discussions that can take place across time zones and away from family.
“It was grueling, but for a trade policy geek, it’s also what you kind of live for,” she said.
Finding the ‘Win-Win-Win’
In the South, she’s looking forward to connecting trade policy to what’s happening on the ground, consulting with industry leaders, government officials and legislators in an effort to find a “win-win-win” in the NAFTA talks and economic ties in general.
Feedback from “stakeholders” has proven to be invaluable in the past. While Canada is by no means immune to vocal pushback from industry and social groups, the country nevertheless is intentional about engaging them even in the run-up to trade talks. Once in the thick of discussions, keeping lines of communication open is key.
“For the TPP I had a division of eight people whose job it was solely to outreach to industry,” Ms. Theodore said.
An even more intense example was CETA, the European deal. Though they didn’t share texts of the deal, both sides’ negotiators sat together with industry groups, labor unions and civil society groups to come up with solutions that could best balance their concerns.
As trade has set passions ablaze in the last few years, having the “social license” for deals has become more vital, Ms. Theodore said.
Showing the benefits of the deal was a big part of gaining the political capital to push through the controversial CETA, which was by no means a foregone conclusion.
“It wasn’t just about big company X being able to sell yet another widget in the EU. We really tried to personalize it and have people that were going to benefit come out and speak positively,” Ms. Theodore said.
That’s what she’s hoping her partners in the Southeast will do for NAFTA, instead of letting the few people negatively impacted by international engagement control the narrative.
“A lot of times when you have something good to say about something, you don’t say anything at all.”
The future of the North American economy — which Canada sees as an integrated whole — could depend on recognizing that “we make things together.”
“The message I give to people is: If you care, or if you think you might care at the 11th hour, now is the time to talk to either your elected officials, or to your chamber colleagues, or your department of economic development colleagues. Now is the time to start the conversation.”
Or to the consulate: Ms. Theodore is open to receiving feedback from companies across her Southern territory.
In the end, the international trading system will outlast a wave of protectionism, she said, and there is one key wild card that people tend to forget: a relationship between Mr. Trump and Mr. Trudeau built on similar ideas with regard to their respective economies.
“Although they have very different styles and approaches, Prime Minister Trudeau and President Trump both campaigned and won on somewhat of a similar tenet: Both of them are trying to bring jobs to the middle class. At the base, at least there’s that in common.”
Settling Into Atlanta
As for her new home in Atlanta, Ms. Theodore and her husband and daughter are settling in well. Though she’s only lived her half a year, she can see them requesting a one-year extension to a four-year appointment.
Part of that has to do with the city’s cultural and culinary offerings. Ms. Theodore hopes to get involved in helping drive forward the arts community, in particular helping drive access to the arts for the underprivileged.
But a lot of it has to do with the mindset of the city, which she has seen first hand but also recently read about in the book “Atlanta Rising: The Invention of an International City,” which looks at the period between 1946 and the Olympics in 1996. She reviewed the book for Global Atlanta in 2017, having read it as a primer on her new home. It didn’t sugar-coat Atlanta’s fraught racial history, but it revealed a sense of aspiration for something more.
“What you could see as you were reading is that despite all of those challenges, the one thing that almost everybody had in common, was that they wanted Atlanta to succeed, and not just succeed in their own citizens’ eyes, but succeed internationally. They had an eye for the future. Atlanta knew that the world was global indeed.”