Skip to main content
opinion

Decades ago, Richard Nixon employed what he called the "madman theory" of negotiations. He let adversaries think he was unpredictable, and maybe a little unstable. He told his chief of staff he wanted the North Vietnamese to think he'd do anything to end the war.

That idea is being raised again now as North Korea talks about attacking Guam – not because of its dictator, Kim Jong-un, who may be an actual madman, but because U.S. President Donald Trump is threatening Pyongyang with "fire and fury." Is Mr. Trump using Nixon's tactic?

Closer to home, there's another area where Canadians might wonder if Mr. Trump will use madman strategy: in negotiations over the North American free-trade agreement.

Related: Freeland to address MPs on Canada's approach in NAFTA talks

Read more: Trump pledge to slash U.S. trade deficit in NAFTA talks divides experts

NAFTA talks are not going to lead to war, of course. But the U.S. President has threatened to blow up the trading arrangements that the Canadian and Mexican economies rely on. He has sometimes seemed oblivious to the impact on U.S. business, too. He casually considered a unilateral withdrawal back in April, to mark his 100th day in office, but backed off after his Agriculture Secretary, Sonny Perdue, showed him a map to illustrate how the loss of NAFTA's agricultural provisions would hurt pro-Trump farmers.

Now, as NAFTA renegotiation talks kick off this week, Canadians might well be wondering if Mr. Trump will be unpredictable again. Lots of folks have opinions about Mr. Trump's mental state, but the question is whether he will use madman tactics in a bid to make Canada and Mexico so nervous that they are willing to make concessions. His April flirtation with NAFTA withdrawal might make you think so, but that could actually reflect another Trump trait – impatience to claim a win.

The first week or two of negotiations is likely to give an indication of the American approach: It could start in the traditional plodding manner, or with a surprisingly aggressive push. And there's a third possibility: that he will signal a desire to reach a quick mini-deal on a few elements.

The typical way to start trade talks is with non-controversial issues first, said Dan Ujczo, an international trade lawyer with crossborder law firm Dickinson Wright. All three countries, for example, have talked about modernizing NAFTA to better cover digital business. Then you move on to controversial issues like the rules of origin that determine how you calculate how much of each product must be made in North America in order to get duty-free treatment. For Canada, two key controversial issues are Chapter 19, which sets out an impartial dispute-settlement mechanism, and its supply management system to protect dairy and poultry farmers. Eventually, negotiators could review all 22 chapters of NAFTA.

But Mr. Trump could, in theory, blow up that plan. Mr. Ujczo said that if the news from the first week is that the U.S. wants to move right to rules of origin, Chapter 19, and say, supply management, it will be a sign the U.S. is seeking to force Canada and Mexico to decide quickly if they will make concessions in the hope of salvaging the rest of NAFTA later. "We would call it the North Korea strategy," Mr. Ujczo said.

Time is short. Because of next summer's presidential elections in Mexico, negotiators are supposed to complete a deal in January. That sounds impossible by itself, but Mr. Ujczo notes another problem: If there is a deal then, it runs right into a challenging political calendar in the U.S., when congressional primaries are being held.

Democrats won't vote for a Trump deal, Mr. Ujczo said, and Republicans won't support anything less than a clear political win for fear of being ousted in their own primaries, Mr. Ujczo argued.

The other possibility is that Mr. Trump will try to do a quick mini-deal in a few specific areas so that he can claim a limited win in January. The U.S. might signal it will skip over agriculture and supply management, for example, to focus on tighter rules of origin for one or two sectors, like autos, to claim Mr. Trump is protecting U.S. jobs – perhaps with a modest tweak to dispute resolution and some new digital-business rules.

That's why the scope and pace of the talks set in the first few weeks matters. It's when we find out if Mr. Trump wants a comprehensive renegotiation, a quick mini-deal, or whether he's acting like a madman.

As Canada prepares to renegotiate the NAFTA trade deal, there are some issues likely to be key in talks with the U.S. Duty-free limits, wine markets and a system for resolving trade disputes are some of the contentious areas.

The Canadian Press