During the 2016 presidential race, an issue that formerly had bipartisan support became a pariah: free trade. Hillary Clinton refused to support the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12 nation trade deal between economies that make 40% of the global economy. Her lack of support for the agreement in its current form during the Democratic Primary is notable and jarring because she helped promote it during her tenure as Secretary of State during the Obama Administration. Secretary Clinton rightfully stated that TPP “sets the gold standard in trade agreements to open free, transparent, fair trade, the kind of environment that has the rule of law and a level playing field,” yet she fell to pressure from the left flank of the Democratic Party.
Republican free trade supporters, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan, did not bring votes on the agreement to the floor of their respective legislative chambers during the twilight of the Obama presidency because they feared a backlash from supporters of Donald Trump, who railed against trade agreements throughout the campaign, even though they supported the agreement because politics of trade became toxic.
Despite the anti-trade rhetoric from the 2016 Presidential Race, 54% of Americans view the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) favorably, according to a November survey from the Pew Research Center. NAFTA is more widely viewed as being beneficial to the country by Democrats, at 72%, but it is only regarded as being beneficial to America by 35% of Republicans, who have historically been very supportive of trade agreements. Although NAFTA went into effect under President Bill Clinton, negotiations began during the administration of George HW Bush, who was building on the Canadian-American Free Trade Agreement written by the Reagan Administration. These agreements were approved because both Congress and voters knew that they would be beneficial to the economic future of America.
It is clear that trade agreements have been beneficial to America, but the proponents of trade deals need to make these benefits clearer to their constituents. An excellent New York Times op-ed by George Shultz, former Secretary of State, Treasury, and Labor, and Pedro Aspe, Mexico’s Secretary of Finance and Public Credit, which was written at the time NAFTA was signed, explains the economic and strategic benefits of a modernized NAFTA, but neglects to address the human side of trade.
Shultz and Aspe are absolutely correct that updating NAFTA will improve North America’s macroeconomy, but the benefits need to be made clear in order to reduce the populist allure of a future repeal. NAFTA wrongly faces criticism for being designed to benefit corporations at the expense of workers. To create an atmosphere of trust around an updated NAFTA, trade representatives should visit workers and union leaders in factories to hear their issues with Nafta to consider when updating it. To build support for trade agreements, I would host negotiations in both manufacturing towns and seaport cities so the negotiators could meet with workers and companies from all ends of the supply chain.
International worker to worker “exchanges” should be part of these trade delegations to reduce nativist rejections of beneficial agreements. Under the Fulbright program, the United States funds cultural exchanges for Americans to teach English abroad and for international scholars to come to America. Why shouldn’t there be a similar program for workers in countries the US has strong trade ties with? Imagine if a United Auto Workers member from Michigan assembling a car could meet with someone in Mexico who makes the tires used on the vehicle, showing how their jobs and industries are more secure because of the common market created by NAFTA.
I envision that American workers who participate in these exchanges would recognize that they share many of the same concerns as their counterparts north or south of the border. This program will humanize workers in the supply chain, eliminating stereotypes about Mexicans “taking jobs” or “greedy, imperialist Yankees,” as NAFTA is criticized as hurting the Mexican economy by Mexican leftist presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Focusing on both the economic benefits and human aspects during NAFTA renegotiations reduces the risk of repeal and could serve as a model for humanizing future trade agreements.