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  August 31st, 2017 | Written by

Renegotiating NAFTA: Let the Games Begin

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  • NAFTA was the first trade deal in US history to slash trade barriers between a wealthy country and a poorer one.
  • NAFTA was the most controversial trade deal ever negotiated by the United States.
  • NAFTA created incentives for US companies to relocate to Mexico to take advantage of lower wages.

The North American Free Trade Agreement was the first in US history to slash trade barriers between a wealthy country and a much poorer one. This month, NAFTA marked another first when officials from Mexico, Canada, and the United States sat down in Washington to begin renegotiating the deal.

The two milestones are not unconnected—NAFTA was the most controversial trade deal ever negotiated by the United States, in part because of the incentives it created for companies to relocate to Mexico to take advantage of lower wages. The success or failure of the coming negotiations will largely determine whether US trade policy can find a firmer footing for the future or continue to be handcuffed by a lack of political and popular support.

Here’s the challenge in a nutshell: how to take a two-decade old agreement that President Trump has called “the worst trade deal ever negotiated,” and somehow alter it sufficiently that the president becomes its champion if and when it goes to Congress for ratification. Trump has many times called himself a great negotiator, and NAFTA will be the acid test of that boast.

Here are the four challenges that must be overcome for a successful NAFTA renegotiation:

Putting America first: Trump’s biggest objection to NAFTA is that it was a one-sided deal, pointing to the large increase in the US trade deficit with Mexico since its enactment and the loss of manufacturing jobs to Mexico. Whether the economic benefits of NAFTA to the United States have outweighed those costs—my colleagues James McBride and Mohammed Aly Sergie have a good backgrounder weighing the arguments—is beside the point. Trump needs to show that he has changed the agreement not just in ways that may benefit all three countries, but in ways that will help the United States relative to Canada and Mexico. That is a much harder task.

The “America first” issues in the US negotiating objectives include eliminating the special dispute settlement provisions under Chapter 19 of NAFTA, strengthening “Buy America” and other procurement rules that benefit American companies, and tightening so-called “rules of origin” to encourage sourcing in the United States and North America.

Each issue is fraught for different reasons. Canada will fight to its last breath to retain the Chapter 19 rules, which allow it to challenge US antidumping and countervailing duty orders before a NAFTA tribunal rather than in US courts. With the ongoing fight over softwood lumber, and a new case that could block sales of Bombardier aircraft in the United States, the issue is still a vital one for Canada. Both Canada and Mexico will object to restrictions on their access to government procurement in the United States, but may be willing to live with this concession. Rules of origin—which is largely an issue for the automotive industry—is a wild card. If they are renegotiated to require more “North American” content, then Mexico will cheer; indeed, it is the US car companies that would object. But if the Trump administration tries to introduce an “American” content requirement, this would clearly violate the spirit of the deal.

Of course, Trump could try out a more traditional “pro-America” argument for trade—that strengthening NAFTA rules for digital commerce, for intellectual property, for labor and environmental standards, would all help US companies and the workers they employ. But since the US negotiating proposals on these issues are borrowed almost entirely from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement that Trump tore up on his first day in the Oval Office, this seems unlikely.

Dealing without deadlines: All three countries are saying that they want to move quickly on the renegotiation to reduce uncertainty for investors in North America. The coming Mexican election next year, which could bring the populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador to power, is seen as an especially strong motivation to get the deal done early. But modern trade negotiations are difficult and complex. The TPP took nearly a decade to negotiate. The Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with Europe was supposed to be concluded last year and has barely made it past the preliminary issues. Mexico’s economy minister Ildefonso Guajardo said last week he sees a “60 percent chance” of the deal being done by the end of the year, which is another way of saying it likely won’t happen.

The bigger problem for Trump is that Mexico and Canada have strong incentives to delay. The longer the talks drag out, the wearier the president is likely to become of the whole exercise, and the more likely he becomes to accept modest changes and try to call it victory. Or, more worrisome, it could force Trump to trigger the NAFTA withdrawal provisions that he came so close to invoking in April, which would be highly disruptive but would have the negotiating advantage of setting a hard, six-month deadline for the talks to succeed or fail.

Holding back the wolves: American business and American farmers really like NAFTA. Except the trucking industry, which wants permission for foreign drivers to “reposition” empty trucks within the United States. And the textile industry, which wants to revisit the “tariff preference levels” agreed to under NAFTA that allow for foreign fabrics to be used in some clothing. And the California wine industry, which objects to the special treatment given to domestic wines in Canadian retail outlets. And the dairy industry, which has long chafed at Canada’s protectionist regime for milk and cheese.

In the testimony in June to the International Trade Commission, US companies that were by and large supportive of NAFTA nonetheless raised dozens of issues they would like to see addressed in the negotiations. But the more issues that are thrown on to the negotiating table, the more difficult it will be to reach a deal in any sort of timely fashion. To get the agreement done, the Trump administration is going to have to get very good at saying no to a host of special interests, each of whom comes armed with influential political allies in Congress.

Dealing with Democrats: Many congressional Democrats, who were frustrated with President Obama’s embrace of the TPP and Hillary Clinton’s lukewarm rejection of the deal, have been chomping at the bit to re-establish themselves as the anti-NAFTA, trade-skeptic party. Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) earlier this month released the party’s “better deal” agenda, which tries to out-Trump Trump in its criticisms of US trade deals.

It can be said with confidence that whatever deal Trump can extract from Canada and Mexico will immediately be denounced as a sell-out and a give-away by the congressional Democrats. That will put the president is a position he would surely prefer to avoid—arguing the merits of NAFTA against vociferous opposition from Democrats, and needing pro-trade Republicans like Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-TX) to carry the load for him in Congress.

NAFTA was the beginning of an era, the first great experiment in freeing trade between high wage and low-wage countries. It set the basic template for many deals that followed, including the CAFTA with Central America and the Dominican Republic, and China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. None of those deals has become more popular with age.

A successful renegotiation of NAFTA would be another milestone, demonstrating such deals can be living agreements that can be updated, improved, and continue to work in the interests of both wealthier and poorer countries. A failure, however, would continue to erode the already fading public confidence in trade.

Edward Alden is the Bernard L. Schwartz Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. This work is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) License.