The Trump administration is out with its detailed statement of renegotiation objectives for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and if you’ve favored turning U.S. trade policy from an engine of debt-creation and offshoring into one of production-fueled growth and domestic job creation, you should be pretty pleased.
As critics have noted, yesterday’s statement does lack numerous important details about how the administration intends to achieve its goals, and some of these omissions (as will be explained) raise legitimate questions about the depth of the president’s commitment to these changes. But the statute requiring the release of such statements doesn’t mandate disclosure of every – or any – specific strategy for reaching these goals. Moreover, the talks haven’t even started, and these tactics naturally tend to change with circumstances. So those accusing the administration of excessive vagueness should start holding their fire.
As indicated in yesterday’s post, the most important change needed in NAFTA is the addition of teeth to the agreement’s existing rules of origin – the requirements that goods sold within the NAFTA free trade zone comprised of the United States, Mexico, and Canada be made overwhelmingly of parts, components, and materials made inside the zone.
After all, manufacturing dominates trade not only inside NAFTA, but between the NAFTA countries and the rest of the world. Without imposing teeth, non-NAFTA countries will have no meaningful incentive to invest in new NAFTA-area facilities to produce the intermediate goods that comprise the content of final products, like automobiles. And the economies, businesses, and workers in the three countries will be denied immense opportunities to boost production and employment. Indeed, this is precisely this opportunity that’s been missed under the current NAFTA.
It’s difficult to imagine these teeth taking a form other than steep tariffs on goods imports from outside NAFTA, and the Trump blueprint never mentions that “t” word. But it does contain a call to “Update and strengthen the rules of origin, as necessary, to ensure that the benefits of NAFTA go to products genuinely made in the United States and North America.” And it specifies that these improved origin rules must “incentivize the sourcing of goods and materials from the United States and North America.” How could anyone supporting more U.S. manufacturing production and employment not be heartened?
Also impressive – as widely reported, the administration has prioritized preserving America’s ability to “enforce rigorously its trade laws, including the antidumping, countervailing duty, and safeguard laws” chiefly by eliminating the NAFTA provisions that established international tribunals as the last word in resolving trade complaints among the signatories, rather than the U.S. trade law system. The Trump administration is also seeking to reestablish America’s unfettered authority to impose “safeguard” tariffs on imports from Mexico and Canada when they begin to surge into the United States. So if you’re worried that NAFTA and other recent U.S. trade agreements have needlessly undermined American sovereignty, this blueprint is for you.
Similarly, critics have long complained about NAFTA’s overriding of the Buy America provisions of U.S. public procurement regulations aimed at maximizing the American taxpayer dollars used to purchase goods and services for government agencies. The Trump strategy laid out in the blueprint seeks to preserve these and other key domestic preference programs.
It’s true, as is being contended, that in areas ranging from promoting high labor rights and environmental standards, to dealing more effectively with the trade distortions created by state-owned enterprises (SOEs), the Trump NAFTA blueprint looks a lot like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal that the president condemned as a candidate and withdrew from on his first day in office.
It’s just as true, however, that formidable obstacles were bound to prevent effective enforcement of those proposed TPP rules. These loom as large as ever – notably, the huge numbers of U.S. government officials that would be needed to monitor the even huge-er Mexican manufacturing sector on anything close to an ongoing basis. But the final TPP text demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that the Obama administration failed to address these concerns adequately. Maybe the Trump administration will come up with viable answers.
Finally, the Trump NAFTA blueprint contains two conceptual objectives that have never been prioritized since the current world trading system was created shortly after World War II, and that trade policy critics should be applauding vigorously. The first is the endorsement of reciprocity as a lodestar of American trade strategy. The second is an emphasis on reducing America’s mammoth trade deficits.
Although reciprocity (i.e., America opens its markets to certain trade partners only to the extent that their markets are open to U.S.-origin goods and services) seems like an uncontroversial trade goal for Washington to seek, and is often presumed to be the goal, nothing until now could be further from the truth. In particular, the foundational principles of the world trade system under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), and the World Trade Organization (WTO) are national treatment and non-discrimination.
National treatment simply insists that countries deal with foreign enterprises the same way they deal with their own domestic enterprises. Non-discrimination simply mandates that countries treat imports from all trade partners’ identically. The big problems? They enable closed economies to maintain way too many trade barriers. For instance, countries that favor certain companies over others for either political reasons (as with China’s state-owned sector) or reasons of national economic strategy (as with Japan’s efforts to limit entrants into certain industries to prevent excessive domestic competition) can continue discriminating in similar ways against foreign competitors. And countries can maintain high trade barriers as long as they apply equally to all imports.
As for trade deficit reduction, it’s a great way to promote healthy, production-led American growth, rather than the kind of debt-led, bubble-ized growth that’s been engineered arguably going back to the 1990s. But here’s where the Trump blueprint can be faulted. Especially if the new NAFTA contains better rules of origin, it’s likeliest to reduce the U.S. trade deficit with non-NAFTA countries, not with the treaty signatories that the blueprint targets. And nothing would be wrong with that result at all.
Two other aspects of the NAFTA objectives deserve comment – and merit genuine concern. First, although it’s good that the administration has included on the list currency manipulation, critics are right to note that specifics are urgently needed. Their development, moreover, is important not mainly because Canada and Mexico have been important culprits (they haven’t been) but because this is a challenge that President Trump needs to meet in connection with countries that clearly have manipulated in the past and could well do so again.
Second, the Trump blueprint makes no mention of value-added taxes (VATS). Mexico’s is 16 percent, Canada’s is five percent at the federal level and eight percent at the provincial level. As with all other VATs, these levies act as barriers to imports and subsidies for exports. Candidate Trump rightly called for American countermeasures in order to level the trade playing field inside NAFTA. President Trump should take heed.