Editorials

EDITORIAL

Roll back NAFTA? That’s no way to run a country

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada waved to members of the Mexican Senate during an appearance there last week.
Marco Ugarte/Associated Press
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada waved to members of the Mexican Senate during an appearance there last week.

It is one of the president’s most maddening — and most dangerous — tendencies. He seems determined to destroy whatever came before him, consequences be damned.

We’ve seen it with Obamacare. We’ve seen it with clean power and the Iran nuclear deal. And now we see it with the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Clinton-era pact that brought down trade barriers in the United States, Mexico, and Canada.

Trump is insisting on major changes to NAFTA that our trade partners have made clear they will never accept, pushing the agreement to the brink of collapse even amid warnings of significant economic repercussions here and worldwide.

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Some observers suspect the administration is making these extreme proposals — including a sunset clause that would lead to NAFTA’s automatic expiration unless the deal is periodically renewed — to give the president cover for what he really wants to do: withdraw from the agreement altogether.

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Trump has insisted NAFTA is the “single worst trade deal” the United States has ever signed, a lopsided giveaway to Mexico that has hollowed out American manufacturing. But the president, as usual, is way off base.

Mexico, which had higher tariffs than the United States before NAFTA, made far steeper cuts. And while the deal played a role in the elimination of American jobs, there were bigger forces at work. Automation. Globalization. Manufacturing was moving to cheaper labor markets whether NAFTA was in place or not.

The deal opened the Mexican and Canadian markets wider, creating new opportunities for American producers. Some of the biggest winners: Kentucky, Kansas, and other Trump-supporting states that ship corn and grain to Mexico. And the agreement has meant cheaper products for hundreds of millions of American consumers — a benefit that should not be undersold.

NAFTA is flawed, no doubt. Just about everybody agrees it should be reshaped for the Internet era. And as critics on the left have argued, it could use more labor and environmental protections. But like it or not, NAFTA is here. It’s part of our economic life. And abandoning it suddenly would come with a cost.

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Take the auto industry, one of our most iconic. It’s best understood, now, as a North American enterprise — a fully integrated, cross-border endeavor. Restrict the movement of auto components, and workers everywhere, including the United States, will be hurt.

There is a smart way to overhaul NAFTA. But Trump is not taking the smart way. And he’s not really interested in an overhaul. The president just wants to destroy anything that isn’t branded Trump. That’s no way to run a country.