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The New and Not Improved NAFTA

US President Donald Trump has called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which succeeds NAFTA, “the single greatest agreement ever signed." In reality, it is not as good as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, from which Trump withdrew the US upon taking office, nor is it particularly better than the agreement it replaced.

CAMBRIDGE – US President Donald Trump acts as if he has pulled off a smashing victory by replacing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – supposedly “the worst trade deal ever” – with the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. But the truth is that, while this outcome is better than an end to free trade in North America, the USMCA is no improvement over the status quo.

Of course, this is Trump’s modus operandi: threaten to do something catastrophic, so people are relieved when things get only a little bit worse. That is what he did with North Korea, when he insulted its leader, Kim Jong-un, and threatened to rain down “fire and fury” on the country. Compared to nuclear conflict, his eventual meeting with Kim seemed like a triumph, even though it produced little actual progress.

Trump’s own mischaracterization of that meeting’s outcome – the problem of a nuclear-armed North Korea, he falsely asserted, had been “solved” – is another standard Trump tactic. He calls the USMCA “the single greatest agreement ever signed.” For Trump, all NAFTA really needed was a new name – one that, as Eswar Prasad points out, literally puts “America First” – to enable him to pretend for his supporters that he achieved something positive.

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