Huddled together in a Washington, D.C. law firm (on K Street no less), a group of former prime ministers, ministers,ambassadors, lawyers, and corporate leaders have come together to determine amongst themselves if the North American Free Trade Agreement is alive or dead.
A stone’s throw away, the negotiating teams from Canada, Mexico, and the US gather in secret to hammer out what is clearly becoming a wholesale revision of the agreement. As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s motorcade pulls up to the White House for what the official itinerary has billed a “tête-à-tête” (perhaps more of a “tweet-a-tweet”) and a formal bilateral meeting, the question on everyone’s mind is whether or not President Trump even wants a deal, or perhaps he prefers to claim a pyrrhic victory.
Back at the K Street summit, the assembled officials of yesteryear speak of the agreement in one of two frames. The first we can call: “Too big to fail.” The argument profiles one or more amazing trade statistic between the NAFTA partners, speaks to the legacy of trade for economic growth, the extraordinary integration of cultures and economies, and concludes that the agreement will only evolve in positive ways, or in the worst case, stay at the status quo. The second frame we can call: “The nuclear winter.” This frame rests on the horrific consequences if the agreement is changed in any way, that the economic consequences for all three parties would lead to horrific outcomes, and would lead to the downfall of civilization as we know it.
Two groups. The official cheerleaders of trade from the public and private sector think the inertia of 24 years of economic and political success will save NAFTA. The technocrats and political class tied to the negotiations whisper and look both ways before answering questions. They are already planning for what a dramatic reduction in trade liberalism between Canada, Mexico, and the US looks like. But neither frame concedes that any of the three nations wants any meaningful change, other than perhaps an expanded scope or modernized terms, and neither concedes that any protectionism on the part of the U.S. negotiating team may reflect a real political consensus or the mandate handed to President Donald Trump by his voters.
One hopes the actual negotiating teams have some political plan for an alternate outcome. The Trudeau team has cannily spent time in town meeting with congressional leadership and the members of the all-powerful Ways & Means committee. Clearly a clever play to a construct a “Plan B.” Should President Trump blow up the negotiations, Congress gets to step in. But even in Congress, a pervasive anti-trade sentiment lingers in both the Republican and Democratic parties, making any pro-trade candidate vulnerable in a primary challenge leading up to the 2018 midterms.
As the day grows longer, officials who have been in the room or talked to the negotiating teams have an ashen look. There is a growing consensus away from the front of the room that talks are dead—or at best on life support. The smarter, quieter voices are discussing what happens with a U.S. notice of withdrawal, the power of legislators hold to protect the agreement from certain death, and the real threat of President Trump to levy tariffs on every commodity to force an end to open North American trade.
Fall weather is Washington at its best, and the snacks at this fancy downtown law firm are first rate, but the climate for NAFTA in Washington at present can be summed up in three simple words…winter is coming.
Chad Rogers is a registered lobbyist and partner in the public affairs agency Crestview Strategy
The Hill Times