For all their legal nuance, trade agreements are written to make commerce more predictable. The rules are meant to increase business confidence, boost investment and spur job creation. It’s time for Congress to show bipartisan support for a more predictable North American market, and pass the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).
USMCA is a much-needed upgrade of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a text that was largely copied over from the US-Canada bilateral trade agreement signed in 1988. To say that NAFTA is outdated is an understatement. Canada and Mexico have concluded trade deals with other countries that do things NAFTA could have never anticipated 25 years ago. USMCA is needed just to keep up.
Three chapters of USMCA deserve far more attention than they’ve received.
First, the chapter on health and safety standards is a must for US agriculture. The biggest threat to our ranchers and farmers is a lack of science-based import regimes abroad, not tariffs.
Tariffs are a tax on trade, whereas health and safety standards, applied in a non-scientific or in a discriminatory way, can act as a ban trade. US agricultural exporters have long demanded more science-based approaches to what are called sanitary and phytosanitary standards, and USMCA delivers on this. USMCA also puts forward a number of consultative mechanisms that will help prevent certain market access problems from arising in the first place.
US agriculture needs Chapter 9 of the USMCA.
Second, the chapter on technical barriers to trade is essential for US manufacturers. It covers the regulatory measures that impact over 90 percent of goods exports from the United States. This is fertile ground for protectionism. Governments can easily use regulatory measures, or ways of assessing conformity with them, that shield domestic producers from import competition. In fact, they can completely shut down trade with a few strokes of the legislative pen.
In USMCA, American manufacturers have more of a voice in the regulatory process in Canada and Mexico concerning their exports. Importantly, USMCA also calls on the three countries to recognize that, in setting technical specifications, performance, and not the provenance of the regulation, is what should matter. This is a longstanding US demand, and USMCA represents a tangible win for US exporters in this regard.
American manufacturing needs Chapter 10 of USMCA.
Third, the chapter on intellectual property is upgraded to reflect the needs of a building a creative economy. The list of international agreements that inform USMCA is striking; many didn’t exist in 1994, never mind in 1988. Copyright protections are modernized, as are those for biologics, a type of drug that could not have been imagined when NAFTA was negotiated. Whereas patents, alone, could help stimulate investment in small molecule drugs, they aren’t enough for the living systems that define biologics. USMCA brings Canada and Mexico closer to the US standard, and in this regard increases protection of American IP abroad.
Other IP provisions will assist a variety of America’s creative industries, from film to fashion to iPhones. These modernized rules, along with consultative mechanisms to ensure a level playing field, will provide the kind of protections that inventors need to bring their ideas to market. This is a win.
America’s creative industries need Chapter 20 of USMCA.
Still, there are some who, while recognizing the benefits of USMCA, worry that the deal cannot effectively enforce labor and environmental standards. They shouldn’t be. The provisions are as good as anything in the EU-Mexico trade agreement, for example, and Europe is renowned for having high expectations on both fronts, both domestically and internationally.
Polls show that, regardless of party, American voters are more supportive of free trade now than ever before. Democrats, Independents and Republicans converge around 80 percent in favor. Polls also show that USMCA has bipartisan backing.
The United States is part of a North American market that thrives on predictability. It’s time for Congress to unite behind USMCA and deliver predictability.
Marc L. Busch is the Karl F. Landegger Professor of International Business Diplomacy at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.