Donald Trump came to office with a vision of a raging global trade war. In some tellings, the war is his glorious conquest. In others, Hillary Clinton launched the invidious assault, which is being waged against American workers through the North American Free Trade Agreement (a deal negotiated before her husband ever took office, let alone her time as secretary of state) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which Clinton disavowed as a candidate). Whoever started the fire, it is clear that Trump sees trade battles as defining his presidency. But confusion over the basic details of the strategy—Should America be fighting Canada? China? Both at once?—have ensured that this war will have few winners.
Friday, the White House formally notified Congress that it intends to renegotiate NAFTA. Mexico has signed onto the deal, and while Canada has not yet, it still could. (The Trump team has tried to make a sense of urgency out of its rotten relationship with Mexico, which will have a new president in December who is even less well disposed to being associated with Trump than the current one.)
Even in their unfinished form, the NAFTA talks so far amount to a rhetorical and political victory for the president. Whether any deal is ever ratified—it would be voted on by the next Congress, which may be hostile to Trump—he has forced America’s trade partners to reckon with his worldview. He can tell American workers he fought for them, just as he promised. But in economic terms, the story of America’s first postwar unfree trade deal is far more mixed. And as a strategic matter, the NAFTA fight leaves the country ill-prepared to face the far more consequential economic struggle with China.