Remember NAFTA? The pact between the U.S., Canada and Mexico that President Trump called “the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere, but certainly ever signed in this country?”
Talks to renegotiate NAFTA — one of Trump’s chief campaign promises — begin in a week in Washington.
Trump blames NAFTA for an exodus of manufacturing jobs to Mexico. He also credits his criticism of the free trade agreement as a key factor in his election.
“Probably one of the major reasons I’m here today — trade,” Trump said March 31. On January 23 he noted “I ran a campaign somewhat based on NAFTA.”
But after all the attention on NAFTA during Trump’s campaign, all the tough talk of tariffs and the verbal warnings from Mexico and Canada, negotiations are set to begin on August 16 with little fanfare from the president.
That may reflect a reality that Trump’s rhetoric once challenged: Trade can be boring.
“Trade negotiations are hard and complex and slow,” says Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I think we’re looking at a much longer negotiation than people think.”
Trump hasn’t tweeted specifically about NAFTA since April 27, though he has addressed other trade issues on Twitter, mostly in relation to China.
Trump himself won’t be renegotiating NAFTA and he’ll be on his working vacation for the first round of talks. The U.S. Trade Representative’s office will be at the negotiating table for the discussions.
The lack of Trump talk on the pact’s renegotiation is telling. He talked about it weekly, if not daily, at various times on his way to the White House. Rust Belt workers who helped seal his election victory frequently say they voted for Trump to get a new NAFTA that would be better for Americans workers.
Last month, the Trump administration laid out its objectives for a renegotiated NAFTA, with the top priority being a reduced trade deficit with Mexico.
Trump’s team also wants to end the use of a panel of judges that presides over NAFTA trade disputes in the region. That could allow Trump to apply tariffs more easily.
The U.S. trade team will be led by John Melle, a career trade official at USTR who was not nominated by Trump.
In fact, Melle was among the staff at the USTR that helped take the original NAFTA agreement, the one Trump hates, across the finish line in 1993, according to an administration official. NAFTA officially became law in 1994.
Of course, many Americans are deeply invested in NAFTA. The USTR received hundreds of submissions during its public hearing on the issue. Several submissions focused on the need to update the agreement with e-commerce policies, which were left out of the original agreement.
Business associations and labor unions have also expressed great interest in the talks. Retailers and farmers want to maintain free trade, while manufacturers are mixed — some want to make manufacturing in Mexico more expensive while others, such as car companies, insist that supply chains need to be kept in tact.
Still, experts acknowledge that with NAFTA talks set to start, the level of interest isn’t what it once was.
“I don’t think very many people are paying attention to this right now,” says Alan Deardorff, a trade expert at the University of Michigan. “There’s nothing exciting coming up.”