Economy & Budget

A trade plan that keeps the US open and workers safe? It’s possible.

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During the presidential campaign and in the months after the election, Donald Trump made clear his intention to reshape America’s approach to international economic affairs. This included renegotiating or withdrawing the United States from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the 1994 pact signed by Canada, Mexico, and the United States. Since his inauguration, President Trump has moved quickly to reiterate this goal, including releasing a White House statement that emphasizes giving “American workers a fair deal.”

In light of the recently cancelled visit to the White House by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and the risk of a growing rift between the two countries, reopening negotiations on NAFTA will be a key opportunity for President Trump to fulfill his campaign promise to recast America’s trade policy for the public good, including his pledge to support U.S. workers. Indeed, if NAFTA is going to be renegotiated, doing so must include securing assistance for American workers who have been hurt by globalization at home and abroad.

{mosads}In this area, and if he is open to seeing it, President Trump will find that significant aspects of NAFTA have already been renegotiated in positive ways and can serve as important instruments for helping U.S. workers. The recently signed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—from which the newly inaugurated president just withdrew the U.S.—features a dedicated chapter on labor standards that modernizes existing agreements and helps correct many of the failings of NAFTA, including providing more effective enforcement mechanisms.


If implemented, these provisions would serve as an essential component for supporting U.S. workers and for helping “level the playing field.” As both NAFTA and TPP signatory countries, Mexico and the United States each have agreed in principle to these updated labor standards. Rather than being scrapped altogether, Congress should demand that they be included in President Trump’s NAFTA renegotiations and indeed in any future bilateral or multilateral trade agreement that the president intends to negotiate.

Notwithstanding the president’s desire to tear up trade agreements, the glaring truth is that even before the recent election, trade and its alleged impacts—as a broader policy—were being maligned by political leaders on both the left and the right and by ordinary Americans who have seen that our current approach isn’t working.

The fact is we need a new approach to trade that integrates core elements. These include not only labor standards, but also social safety net and adjustment protections for displaced American workers, and development and technical assistance support for U.S. trading partners to ensure they effectively implement and enforce trade agreement provisions. This is the only way to build a broad political consensus that a dynamic and global economy—with international trade being one aspect—can be managed in a way that is responsive to all Americans.

Brought together as a holistic approach, these three policy elements should form the basis for an integrated framework that would do much to heal many of the divisions that characterize the debate over international trade and economic policy in the United States today. Absent such a course correction, trade skeptics will become further entrenched and justified in their beliefs that the U.S. approach to global economic engagements is content to pursue its goals from a narrow vantage point.

The president and the Congress should not allow that to happen.

Karen A. Tramontano is chief executive officer of Blue Star Strategies and president of the Global Fairness Initiative. Her full proposal for a new approach to trade was published by the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina University.

The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Congress Donald Trump Donald Trump economy Jobs North American Free Trade Agreement Trade Trans-Pacific Partnership
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