Trump does NAFTA

DEMYSTIFYING TRADE POLICY: An Aug. 10 “NAFTA town hall” organized by the Oregon Fair Trade Campaign.

By Don McIntosh

NAFTA is not a failed trade agreement. Written by and for the benefit of corporate elites, the North American Free Trade Agreement is a resounding success — for them. It succeeded in doing what it was intended to do: make Mexico safer for U.S. and Canadian investors, and lock in opportunities for big companies to sell back and forth between Mexico, the United States and Canada, tariff-free.

That’s why NAFTA is still so popular on the pages of Wall Street Journal. If the U.S. has unending trade deficits with Mexico, if 850,000 U.S. manufacturing jobs have been lost, if millions of Mexican farmers have been uprooted by American ag exports, it’s not because NAFTA failed; it’s because it succeeded. It’s the corporate elites who failed — failed to show any concern for the wellbeing of the working people of the United States, Mexico, and Canada.

But that’s not the line you’ll hear from President Donald Trump as he undertakes a quick fix of the 23-year-old agreement. Trump’s narrative is that NAFTA is an agreement between competing national interests in which wily Mexican negotiators outfoxed incompetent American negotiators. That narrative should be shelved in the fiction section. But understandably, Trump’s persistent criticism of NAFTA was music to the ears of American voters who feel rightly betrayed by their nation’s trade policy.

Now he just has to deliver.

On May 18, Trump’s trade czar Robert Lighthizer gave formal notice to Congress that the president would begin negotiations with Canada and Mexico. The first round of talks took place behind closed doors in Washington, D.C. Aug. 15-20. The second round will take place in Mexico Sept. 1-5, followed by a third round in Canada later in September.

If and when any agreement is reached, we’ll definitely want to read the fine print.

The White House published its official objectives for the NAFTA renegotiations on July 17. Trump talked repeatedly about slapping 35 percent tariffs on imports, but his Administration’s NAFTA goals summary says the United States wants to “maintain existing reciprocal duty-free market access.” Other goals include elimination of “burdensome re- strictions of intellectual property,” and “greater regulatory compatibility.” There’s no mention of eliminating NAFTA Chapter 11,  which lets foreign investors sue governments in private courts to overturn regulations they feel are unnecessarily burdensome.

“I think what we’re seeing out of Trump is a guy who’s anxious to look like he’s lived up to campaign promises,” says Russell Lum, director of the union-backed Oregon Fair Trade Campaign. “He got elected on blue collar votes because he trashed NAFTA in campaign speeches. Now he feels cornered into renegotiating it, but he’s surrounded by people who benefit from the status quo.”

What does the national AFL-CIO think about Trump renegotiating NAFTA? We talk to the labor federation’s top trade expert. Here’s what she said.

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