Talk­ing trade in un­cer­tain times

The News (New Glasgow) - - OPINION -

Like most things in­volv­ing U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, it’s prob­a­bly bet­ter to wait a few days and see if clearer heads pre­vail. Or, if a week down the road, things make more sense.

Mon­day, Trump and Mex­i­can Pres­i­dent En­rique Peña Ni­eto an­nounced that their two coun­tries had reached a bi­lat­eral “un­der­stand­ing” on trade, with Trump say­ing that Canada could opt to join in the deal, or look for its own bi­lat­eral deal with the U.S.

That must be a lit­tle dis­qui­et­ing for the Cana­dian govern­ment, be­cause the North Amer­i­can Free Trade deal had been a tri­par­tite ar­range­ment, with changes sup­pos­edly jointly reached by the three coun­tries.

For Canada, a North Amer­i­can trade deal is a crit­i­cal thing; for one thing, much of our ex­port busi­ness is with the U.S., and ever since Trump’s launch of a tar­iff war with, well, pretty much ev­ery­one, you can well imag­ine Cana­dian busi­nesses bid­ing their time about in­vest­ing in equip­ment and hir­ing staff to con­tinue to feed the U.S. mar­ket.

Trump has proven to be re­mark­ably volatile, lurch­ing from petty slight to grandiose at­tempts at in­ter­na­tional diplo­macy. (In that cat­e­gory, North Korea de­nu­cle­ariza­tion — a win or an ex­pen­sive pub­lic re­la­tions stunt?)

He’s threat­ened to bail out of the NAFTA deal reg­u­larly, railed against sup­ply man­age­ment, ar­gued that Canada was abus­ing the process, ne­go­ti­at­ing un­rea­son­ably, and the list goes on.

All of this over trade be­tween the three coun­tries that’s worth more than $1 tril­lion a year.

The an­nounce­ment with Mex­ico was a quickly or­ga­nized af­fair, and the Cana­dian govern­ment looked to be scram­bling a bit as they re­sponded.

“Canada’s sig­na­ture is re­quired,” For­eign Af­fairs spokesman Adam Austen said in an email. “We will only sign a new NAFTA that is good for Canada and good for the mid­dle class” and “we will con­tinue to work to­ward a mod­ern­ized NAFTA.”

For­eign Af­fairs Min­is­ter Chrys­tia Free­land is in Europe this week, Canada hasn’t been at the ta­ble in the talks since July.

One thing is cer­tain. Get­ting a deal down on paper might do a lot to, if noth­ing else, fo­cus Trump’s vo­latil­ity on some­one else for a while.

Any deal, though, will have to be rat­i­fied by all three coun­tries and, in the case of the United States, will have to go through Congress. Sig­nif­i­cantly, given U.S. trade law, it will have to go through Congress af­ter the mid-term con­gres­sional elec­tions in Novem­ber, when the elec­toral map may be sig­nif­i­cantly dif­fer­ent than it is now.

Let’s wait a few weeks and see what shakes down, see what is true, and what’s just Trump’s trademark trade blus­ter. Right now, for ex­am­ple, Trump is mak­ing great hay out of chang­ing NAFTA’s name to make it more palat­able. And what does the name mat­ter?

The sug­ges­tion, clearly, is that, as in many pres­i­den­tial mat­ters right now, ap­pear­ance trumps re­al­ity.

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