Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty Images
He’s done it again.
President Trump is very, very good at announcing international agreements. Very good at shaking up certainties of global affairs, resetting a narrative, and getting domestic media coverage to follow in his wake.
By doing so, he resets expectations and alliances in American politics, despite the fact that he is terrible — the worst — at delivering on the promises of his “deals,” whether it’s a denuclearized North Korea, a better Iran deal, or a new “America first” vision for global trade.
He’s also very good at moving on to the next “success” to pull attention away from the failure of past “agreements” to produce concrete results for American security and communities.
So here we are again.
Monday’s announcement of a “new trade deal with Mexico” that will “replace NAFTA”? On the one hand, there’s no deal, and no new NAFTA, behind the draft set of provisions negotiated informally with one half of what constitutes the North American Free Trade Alliance. On the other hand, Trump has successfully shaken up the expectations of labor, workers, and business about what might be on offer, and who might offer it.
But it would be wrong to dismiss this one as just another piece of political theater. It has the potential to reshape not just trade, but U.S. politics, in important ways.
The “deal” was done with Mexico’s outgoing Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto, whose party just got trounced in elections. The incoming president, leftist Manuel Lopez Obrador, has said he supports the process but wants to throw out one chapter of the deal entirely. Like the Singapore summit before it, it’s hard to find a signed piece of paper with all the agreements written down. And by omitting Canada, the process both stands outside the legal form of NAFTA and misses more than half of the deal’s economic value to the U.S.
Still, if they were implemented, the provisions the White House announced would dramatically shift U.S. auto manufacturing — either by bringing some jobs back to the U.S. or by shifting production out of the U.S. altogether, experts are unsure which. Given Trump’s record to this point, we are unlikely to find out the ultimate effects of the “deal.” But that leaves everyone free to claim this provision as their new baseline for future negotiations — just as, by the way, the Trump team appears to have quietly worked off the provisions that team Obama negotiated in the Trans-Pacific Partnership that would have covered Canada and Mexico as well.
It is entirely possible, even after all this, that there is never a deal. And what happens then? Unless Congress actually repeals it, NAFTA bumps along as it is; big business gets today’s market uptick; and disaffected white workers reinforce the idea that Trump, and only Trump, speaks to their concerns — and that his winner-take-all, racially charged, nationalist narrative is how international affairs actually work.
But in the background there is the constant chaos of Trump’s past “successes” unraveling.
For instance, he abruptly canceled Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s planned trip to North Korea. This was on the heels of announcing the appointment of a new North Korea envoy, Steve Biegun, longtime member of the GOP foreign policy Establishment and, coincidentally, Ford Motor Company lobbyist. Today, Josh Rogin has the goods on why Trump nixed the mission — the North’s chief negotiator had sent Washington another nasty-gram. A similar chain of events unspooled this spring, leading to a last-minute cancellation — then a resumption — of the Singapore summit. All that flailing took away what limited opportunity State Department negotiators had to prepare serious outcomes.
Oh, and speaking of State Department negotiators and serious outcomes, today we also had Europe’s response to the appointment of another senior GOP Establishment figure, Brian Hook, to head the Iran Action Group and improve coordination with allies: Let’s find some other partners besides Washington to work with.
There’s more. How’s that great relationship with Russia going? The Kremlin is staging its biggest military exercise since the Cold War ended, and preparing for a large-scale military assault inside Syria, on a rebel stronghold where thousands of civilians remain.
So the chances that Americans currently unemployed or earning $10 an hour in nonunion facilities in Mississippi will see $16-an-hour jobs in the auto industry are minimal; and the chances that Congress will have a completed revision of NAFTA to vote on before the midterms are not much better. But the chances that Trump has permanently shifted the domestic politics around trade and diplomacy? Hovering near 100 percent.