Justin Trudeau is on a Save-the-NAFTA tour.
This is no longer just a case of wheedling U.S. President Donald Trump, tête-à-tête, into renegotiating with a little more free-trading spirit. The U.S. President is giving signs he could really trigger a withdrawal from the North American free-trade agreement.
That means a big part of Mr. Trudeau's trip this week to Washington and Mexico City has to be about Plan B: what to do if Mr. Trump really wants to terminate NAFTA. Can the President be corralled into another path? Delayed? Stopped?
It's not just the meeting with Mr. Trump. The Prime Minister will also meet with U.S. lawmakers who may be key to blocking Mr. Trump if he does choose to withdraw from NAFTA. And then Mr. Trudeau visits Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who would obviously be an important ally in a lobbying-and-politicking campaign if the talks go off the rails.
In Washington, Mr. Trudeau will meet with members of the powerful House ways and means committee and its subcommittee on trade. Their potential power is critical because Congress, not the President, has constitutional jurisdiction over trade – and, if it's willing, the power to contest a Trump order to withdraw from NAFTA.
Mr. Trudeau's entourage insist this trip isn't a mission to save the trade deal. They don't want to add drama. The Prime Minister's Office portrayed the NAFTA elements as add-ons to a trip set up for the PM to attend Fortune magazine's Most Powerful Women Summit before making his first official trip to Mexico. In other words, Mr. Trudeau will be in the neighbourhood. But this is about saving NAFTA. Mr. Trudeau would be shirking his duty if it wasn't.
That's not simply because Mr. Trump has said again, in an interview with Forbes magazine, that he thinks "NAFTA will have to be terminated" to get a better deal. He has made those noises since April, when his aides – along with Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Peña Nieto – talked him out of announcing U.S. withdrawal from NAFTA to mark his 100th day in office.
Withdrawing and negotiating is a tactic. But Mr. Trump's Buy American/Hire American agenda also clashes with elements of renegotiating a deal. Either way, he doesn't grasp the danger of this game of chicken. Back in April, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue reportedly had to show him a chart of the damage a NAFTA break would do to pro-Trump farmers. Even triggering the six-month notice of withdrawal could cause layoffs in all three countries. Mexico insists it won't keep negotiating if he does it.
In talks, U.S. negotiators are tabling in-your-face proposals. In the lastest round, in Ottawa, the United States proposed tight new caps on Canadian companies bidding on U.S. government contracts. In this week's fourth round, according to The Wall Street Journal, the Americans will propose that vehicles entering the United States duty-free contain 50-per-cent U.S. content – ending free trade for autos. Thomas Donohue, the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, warned on Tuesday that "poison pill" proposals may doom negotiations.
Now Mr. Trudeau, only two months into the talks, is shuttling to meet his counterparts. His team hopes a face-to-face meeting can get to what Mr. Trump wants – and get him to focus on a doable deal. The two have a relationship. When they first met in Washington just eight months ago, Mr. Trump apparently saw Mr. Trudeau as a success. But that's when the President said that in Canada's case NAFTA only needed tweaking. That didn't last.
In Congress, Mr. Trudeau can press other power brokers. The ways and means committee controls taxation and is crucial to one of Mr. Trump's big priorities: a tax cut. Its chairman, Kevin Brady, represents the border state of Texas and has suggested that Mr. Trump tone down the NAFTA rhetoric. Its trade subcommittee chair, Dave Reichert of Washington State, wants NAFTA updated, not scrapped. With midterm elections looming, many members of Congress won't want NAFTA drama next year; if they can't get a quick deal in early 2018, they'll share Mr. Trudeau's goal of getting Mr. Trump to step back from withdrawal. If he can't get the President to say what he needs to make a deal, Mr. Trudeau needs allies to divert him away from breaking one.