A month ago, it looked entirely possible that Trump, who considers himself the world’s greatest dealmaker, could go the first two years of his presidency without making any deals at all, on anything. He has walked away from some deals — the Iran nuclear agreement, the Paris climate accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership — but not done anything new, whether you’re talking about trade, military cooperation, conflict resolution or even domestic legislation. (The one major thing Republicans in Congress did, a tax cut, happened largely without his involvement.) Could that be because everyone, especially other nations, looks at him and sees a dishonest, erratic, unreliable partner whom they can’t trust to keep his word? Who knows?
But then last week, Trump signed an update to a free-trade agreement we had with South Korea, making some minor tweaks that might or might not result in more American cars being sold there. At last, a deal! Trump had called the original version, in place since 2012, a “horrible deal.” He hailed the new agreement by saying, “It’s great for South Korea. It’s great for the United States. It’s great for both.”
And now that same script is being written about the new NAFTA, officially called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA (unfortunately, “Uh-sum-cuh” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue). The North American Free Trade Agreement, Trump often said, was the worst deal in history. But with just a couple of changes, it’s now going be trumpeted as the greatest thing since the poutine taco.
So what changes? Not all that much. Here are some highlights:
- Autos: In order to qualify for zero tariffs, autos will have to have more of the manufacturing done by high-paid workers.
- Dairy: Canada will accept more American milk and dairy products.
- Copyright: Canada will extend the term of copyright from 50 years after the copyright holder’s death to 70 years, as the United States demanded.
- Drug patents: At U.S. urging, Canada will offer enhanced patent protection for drugs, which will make them more expensive to Canadian consumers and increase profits for the drug industry.
- Dispute resolution: A NAFTA provision allowing investors to challenge the decisions of governments has been eliminated, while another provision providing for disputes among the three countries to be settled by a panel of representatives from all three has been retained.
- New name!
For some people, these changes could be significant — like if you’re a dairy farmer outside Grand Forks eager to get your milk into the cereal bowls of Winnipeg consumers — but on the scale of the three nations, it seems pretty minor. It certainly isn’t going to have some kind of enormous, so-much-winning-we’ll-get-tired-of-winning effect on the American economy.
But that’s probably what we should have expected. Trade was always one of the few issues Trump seemed to sincerely care about, along with immigration; long before he became a politician, he would rail about how the United States was getting screwed by other countries, which are far more shrewd than we are, and that they’re all laughing at us. (Trump seems to have an obsession with being laughed at.) Yet he never appeared to understand how trade works. He regularly refers to trade deficits as America “losing” the amount of the deficit, as though when American consumers buy goods from China or Canada or Germany the money has simply disappeared and the consumers haven’t gotten the goods they purchased. At Monday’s event celebrating the new agreement, he said, “It’s a privilege for [other countries] to come in and attack the piggy bank,” by which he meant Americans buying foreign goods, which is not exactly other countries stealing our money.
And he was almost never specific about what it was in the NAFTA agreement he objected to. Instead, he’d use it as way of talking about the decline of American manufacturing jobs in particular, and the broader decline of high-wage, good-benefit, secure jobs in general. Those, however, are big, broad trends that started long before NAFTA and that NAFTA affected only at the margins.
Had Trump gone into too much detail about his particular complaints about NAFTA, it might have become clear that changing or even scrapping the agreement wouldn’t bring back the labor market of the 1950s and 1960s, when the middle class was reaping most of the gains of a growing economy. His vagueness may have been born of ignorance, or it may have been a clever bit of foresight, because it meant he could eventually negotiate a new trade agreement and declare victory no matter what the new agreement actually contained.
Which he is already doing:
It seems a little silly to take a hugely complex agreement such as NAFTA, make a few tweaks to it, change the name, and declare that you’ve actually created something entirely new. But as Steve Benen observes, this is hardly the first time Trump has focused intently on what something is called, as though that were far more important than what it actually does. It’s not just because Trump is superficial and obsessed with image, though he is; it’s also that he’s obsessed with his image. If you make some changes to NAFTA but don’t change the name, then the result doesn’t give sufficient credit to him. If he could have called it TRUMPFTA, he would have, but short of that, USMCA will have to do.
But what it won’t do is transform the American economy in the way he has promised. No matter what name you put on it.