More than once, Donald Trump has called the North American Free Trade Agreement “the worst trade deal ever made.” At other times, he has referred to NAFTA as a “bad joke.” As recently as Sept. 1, he claimed the whole thing was unnecessary: “We were far better off before NAFTA — should never have been signed,” he tweeted.
But now, NAFTA is gone. In its place, we have . . . the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). And it looks eerily, suspiciously, familiar.
This new agreement does, it is true, include some important changes to the rules about manufacturing cars and trucks, though it isn’t yet clear exactly who will benefit. It’s also made some technical alterations to the dairy market and to the rules governing disputes. Canada and Mexico will have some extra protection against U.S. car tariffs; on the other hand, Mexico will be required to make it easier for workers to organize trade unions.
All three sides gained some things. All three sides conceded some things. The upshot: North American free trade will continue, more or less, as it has done for many years, regulated by the agreement formerly known as NAFTA. The only truly radical difference is that Trump’s negative, angry language has been replaced by happy, enthusiastic language. The USMCA, Trump tweeted Monday morning, is “a historic transaction!” Which it is — if you believe that history is made every time the sun rises.
What was the real purpose of this drama? Perhaps the months of bluffing and bluster were purely political, a con designed to deceive his base. As in North Korea, where no agreement of substance has been made at all, Trump needed to make the situation sound terrible to be able to claim he had turned it around. Certainly that was the message being put out by his media claque Monday. “Once again,” tweeted Laura Ingraham of Fox News, “@realDonaldTrump delivers.”
It may also be that Trump thinks this is the way to “win” trade negotiations: Browbeat and intimidate your rivals, threaten to walk away from the table, get concessions and then declare victory. Certainly it’s true that many Canadians, and many Americans who trade with Canada, did begin to believe that NAFTA might not survive, and the pressure on both the Mexican and Canadian leaders was very high.
It may also be that Trump is ignorant or that he simply doesn’t know he has reproduced the same trade deal, with tweaks. This, during a news conference, is how he described the history of free trade: “You know, tariffs ended in 1913. They then went to a different system in 1918, totally unrelated. And then in 1928, you had the Great Depression. For a lot of different reasons . . . and then in the 1930s, they said we’d better start charging some tariffs.” If that’s his version of the early 20th century — an era when waves of tariffs kept deepening an economic crisis — it’s not surprising he doesn’t quite get what’s going on in the 21st.
Whatever the reason for turning an ordinary trade negotiation into an apocalyptic war of words, Trump has not counted the cost of the collateral damage. He might have forgotten the language he used and the anger he caused. But other people haven’t, and they won’t in future. After this drama — replete with insults, personal attacks, threats to walk away — America’s neighbors will think twice before fighting alongside us, cooperating with us or collaborating with us any time soon. And who can blame them?