By Alan Guebert
Farm and Food File
If you wanted to renegotiate an aging, but working, trade treaty with two of your biggest, best customers, you’d think sweet talk and calm persuasion might work better than boorish bombast and shrill demands.
Well, think again because the Trump administration is now in charge and bombast and demands are standing protocols, whether you’re dealing with a nuclear-fanged North Korean dictator or a mild-mannered Canadian dairy farmer.
Sure, you and I know there’s a difference between rogue nations with nuclear weapons and friendly neighbors with too much blueberry yogurt. Team Trump, though, not so much.
For example, after Canada recently offered to open 3.25 percent of its domestic dairy market to U.S. imports, the Trump administration countered that it needed 10 times more access, or nearly one-third of the Canadian dairy market, dedicated to U.S. products.
Canadian negotiators, understandably, blanched at the demand. CBC/Radio Canada called the U.S. counterproposal “so far beyond the realm of what’s palatable … that it’s all but exploded earlier hopes of a quick, easy negotiation.”
The Americans suspected as much. “One non-U.S. official described the body language of American negotiators as: ‘Kind of sheepish. They say, “We don’t have any flexibility on this,’” noted the CBC.
A second observer described it this way: “The (U.S.) negotiators are like lawyers who hate their clients.”
But the “sheepish” American negotiators have only one client, Mr. Art of the Deal himself, President Donald J. Trump. He and his always open, always rambling Twitter stream compose the entire White House policy-making machinery.
The American press was equally baffled by the White House’s most recent take-no-prisoners approach in the ongoing North American Free Trade Agreement talks. Even the typically friendly editorial page of the Wall Street Journal threw some hard punches at the president’s NAFTA demands.
If the bullying was just a “negotiating tactic” in an effort “to settle for much less and claim victory,” the Journal noted, then fine. If it’s for real, however, then “Mr. Trump is playing a game of chicken he can’t win.”
In fact, “blowing up” NAFTA, “could be the worst economic mistake by a U.S. president since Richard Nixon trashed Bretton Woods” — an international agreement that tied major currencies, including the dollar, to gold — “and imposed wage and price controls.” (Both were market sins so egregious that the Journal has neither forgotten nor forgiven either almost 50 years later.)
As badly as the recent round of talks began Oct. 15, they ended worse just two days later. Canada’s lead negotiator, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, publicly chided U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer for American demands that would “severely disrupt supply chains,” weaken North American productivity, and “jeopardize thousands” — really millions — “of jobs in all three countries.”
Lighthizer, in turn, tried to make light of the tough hand he has been dealt as Trump’s bellicose trade talker.
“Concluding a trade deal that Mr. Trump did not like,” explained the Financial Times quoting Lighthizer, “‘would be a quicker way to lose your job than chartering an airplane,’” a reference to other Trump Cabinet officers who are under fire for using costly private aircraft for public travel.
The joke fell as flat as Lighthizer’s latest demands; neither is going anywhere anytime soon. Nor are the NAFTA talks. All agreed to add new rounds for 2018, something no one wanted when talks began this past summer.
But that’s where three nations and their farmers and ranchers are after four fruitless rounds of mostly pointless talks to update a trade deal that covers one-fourth of the world’s economy. Even worse, the talks could collapse.
If they do, failure will pack a very unpleasant surprise for Team Trump, noted the Journal. “Mexico and Canada know that … reverting to pre-NAFTA tariff levels could hurt the U.S. more. Mr. Trump can hurt our neighbors if he wants, but the biggest victims will be Mr. Trump’s voters.”
Or nearly seven out of 10 rural Americans.
The Farm and Food File is published weekly throughout the U.S. and Canada. Source material, past column and contact information are posted at farmandfoodfile.com.