Good news: The North American economy has been granted a stay of execution. Negotiations to revise Nafta, which seemed close to collapse not so long ago, have been extended into next year.
The U.S. should use this pause to rethink its whole approach to the North American Free Trade Agreement.
President Donald Trump has been consistent, if nothing else, in attacking Nafta both during his campaign and in office. His analysis of Nafta’s costs is all wrong — the deal has been a boon to the U.S. and to North America as a whole.
That’s not to say that the agreement can’t be improved and updated; it can be. The most obvious and easy way would be to incorporate elements of the abandoned Trans-Pacific Partnership into Nafta. Doing so would allow Trump to win Mexico’s and Canada’s agreement, change and rebrand Nafta — and mark the new pact as a notable Trumpian achievement.
Instead, the administration has underlined demands that are bad on their own terms and which Mexico and Canada will be hard-pressed to accept.
Trump wants to water down the pact’s dispute-settlement procedures, which are vital to assure the smaller economies that their interests won’t be trampled. He wants stronger local-content rules for Nafta trade, which would disrupt supply chains and discourage intra-regional trade. And he wants a sunset provision that would turn Nafta into a temporary arrangement liable to end at short notice, rather than the settled and predictable trading system that it is.
Canada and Mexico, as expected, appear to have balked at these demands. The resulting delay doesn’t help companies impatient for clarity, which is a needless cost in its own right. Nevertheless, it’s good that the talks, and Nafta itself, have not yet hit a wall.
The administration can change Nafta for the better, and take credit for doing so. But threatening to wreck the pact — a danger by no means dispelled by the talks’ extension — is a grave disservice to the U.S. economy and its workers.