"NAFTA is the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere, but certainly ever signed in this country," declared candidate Donald Trump during a September debate with Hillary Clinton. On the campaign trail, Trump vowed to drastically change the 23-year-old free trade pact to make it a winning deal for the US — and threatened to scrap the deal altogether if he didn't get what he wanted.
But a draft proposal from the Trump administration that's been circulating in Congress recently doesn't appear to push for a radical transformation of
The draft proposal sounds strikingly sunny about the importance of free trade with the US's NAFTA trading partners, Canada and Mexico, acknowledging their "shared interests" and "common values." It contains plenty of fairly conventional language on market access and reducing trade barriers that accompany typical letters of this kind. And while there are a number of provisions that Canada and Mexico are likely to object to, there's a noticeable absence of the kinds of protectionist proposals that would have guaranteed the accord went down in flames.
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"[These positions] could be the beginning of a negotiation that Canada and Mexico would be willing to participate in," Chris Wilson, deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, told me. "It definitely signaled the US goal would be to update NAFTA and improve it — not to blow up NAFTA."
There are limitations on how much we can read into the proposal. Much of the language is ambiguous and prone to diverging interpretations. And the letter is a draft, so it doesn't reflect the administration's final stance and could potentially change substantially before it is made official and sent to Congress as a letter of intent to renegotiate the pact.
Right now the Trump administration is still discussing the proposal with lawmakers focused on trade in the House of Representatives and the Senate to refine negotiation priorities. The White House and Congress need to find common ground before negotiations begin and for changes to have any chance of being approved by Congress.
But from what we can tell so far, the document appears to be a compromise rather than the war cry that Trump promised as a candidate. There are some proposals that, depending on how they look when they're expanded on with more detail, could cause some tense negotiations. But there are also plenty of modest measures that all three countries are likely to be able to have fruitful discussions on. And in an ironic twist, some of the most important ones hail from proposals negotiated under a trade treaty in the Obama era that Trump blew up during his first week in office.