NAFTA? USMCA? Jean Chrétien doesn’t see much of a difference. And he thinks U.S. President Donald Trump’s crowing over the new deal shows he can’t be taken seriously.
The former prime minister, now 15 years out of office, is bullish on progress: His forthcoming book, My Stories, My Times, includes an upbeat assessment of a world that has grown more peaceful, prosperous and democratic. But Mr. Trump, he said, is damaging America’s reputation, perhaps endangering the long postwar run of peace and prosperity − and the long-term consequences will be big.
His book of anecdotes and essays. written in longhand at his dining-room table, includes a preface that suggests he’d sometimes put pen to paper when he’d heard enough of Mr. Trump − “when I’m tired of observing the surrealist vagaries of Donald Trump, and of listening to his nonsense.” He calls Mr. Trump “unspeakable,” and derides him for “proclaiming a return to isolationism.”
In an interview, Mr. Chrétien compared Mr. Trump’s election-campaign criticisms of the North American free-trade agreement to what he achieved with the United States-Mexico-Canada-Agreement (USMCA) – and mocked the President’s declarations of success.
“He was supposed to be out [of NAFTA] weeks after he became President,” Mr. Chrétien said. “And now he changed the name, and it’s the best deal ever, since God created the Earth.”
“So you know, fine. Can you take him very seriously?”
Mr. Chrétien had predicted, in his own pithy way, that it would be hard to undo NAFTA, and the integration of the three economies: “You cannot undo an omelette,” he warned last year. Now, he thinks Mr. Trump found out how hard it was.
“So he changed a word – the title. That’s it,” Mr. Chrétien said.
“Look at what changed. They gave a bit of milk. And they stopped some workers from Mexico from building parts with too-small salaries. The rest is technical.”
Canada agreed to open 3.6 per cent of its dairy market to U.S. producers. The USMCA requires 40 per cent of Mexican cars to be made by workers earning at least $16 an hour.
There are other changes, of course, to intellectual-property rules, duty-free limits and a clause that requires Canada and Mexico let the United States see an advance text of any future trade deal with a non-market country such as China.
Some consider the changes important. But Gordon Ritchie, Canada’s deputy chief negotiator in the first free-trade talks with the United States, expressed a similar view to Mr. Chrétien’s: Not much changed, even if Mr. Trump tells his most “gullible” supporters it’s a revolution.
Mr. Chrétien mocked Mr. Trump’s response as part of the United States' political need to declare victory.
“I had to deal with the Americans all my life. They win all the time. Like a baby, they win all the time. They won in Vietnam,” Mr. Chrétien scoffed. “[Mr. Trump] will win. It’s the best deal. It’s no more NAFTA. It’s USMCA.”
It’s worth noting that Mr. Chrétien also campaigned by saying he’d change NAFTA, back in 1993. He didn’t vow to scrap it, but he did say he’d insist on changes. In the end, he accepted side letters on labour and the environment – weaker changes than voters expected.
In My Stories, My Times, he describes former U.S. president Bill Clinton calling him the morning after he was elected in 1993, to ask him to help implement NAFTA – negotiated under Brian Mulroney but not in effect till 1994 – and he immediately sent aides to work. But the third-place candidate that Mr. Clinton defeated, Ross Perot, also called, and offered to build a statue of Mr. Chrétien in Texas if he killed NAFTA. Mr. Chrétien told Mr. Perot “no Texan could vote for me in the next election.”
Maybe Mr. Trump’s crowing over replacing NAFTA with USMCA is politics?
“Politics is serious. He is not serious,” Mr. Chrétien said. “That is his problem.”
“Do you think that the reputation is great around the globe since they voted for him? I’m travelling around the globe. [People] talk about it. What will be the long-term consequences? It’s going to be big.”
He added: “We’ve had 73 years of peace and growth on the world. No big wars. That never happened before.” And he suggested Mr. Trump will endanger that.
And yet, Mr. Trump argues that “everything he does is perfect.”
“But I don’t think you can conclude that it’s good for America. It’s not good for America. And it’s not good for the globe.”