Walkom: Trump’s decision on Jerusalem and the implications for NAFTA

Donald Trump has thrown the Middle East into a tizzy. The U. S. president’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has been denounced by some of America’s closest allies.

Chances for a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, always slim at best, now seem even more remote.

But for Canadians, Trump’s Jerusalem decision signals something else as well. It shows that he is willing to deliver on his election promises, no matter how unwise the experts think they are.

Those who fear that he might keep his pledge to abrogate the North American Free Trade Agreement should be worried. Most experts like NAFTA, which links the economies of Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. It lowers costs, promotes efficiencies and integrates production. With the exception of labour leader Jerry Dias, the head of Unifor, voices critical of NAFTA are rarely heard from.

In the U.S. too, the experts are solidly behind the pact. They point out, correctly, that NAFTA allows American business to take advantage of cheap Mexican labour. This may put Americans out of work, but ultimately it lowers the prices paid by U.S. consumers for things such as automobiles.

The experts also point out, again correctly, that NAFTA has been a boon for America’s government-subsidized agribusinesses looking to flood the Mexican market with cheap corn.

From time to time, mainstream politicians – including then presidential candidate Barack Obama –denounced NAFTA. But the experts were confident that these seemingly rogue politicians would change their tune after being elected. Until Trump came along, the experts were always proved right.

In the same way, Middle East experts didn’t worry too much when presidential candidates promised to move America’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Bill Clinton made that promise when running for the presidency as did George W. Bush. But once in office, both were quickly convinced to back away from their pledges.

The experts were able to point out – correctly in my opinion – that taking sides on the fraught issue of Jerusalem’s status would make it near impossible for the U.S. to act as a neutral arbitrator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But Trump is different. He doesn’t care what the experts say. He thinks he knows better.

In the Jerusalem case, he may be influenced by that fact that Sheldon Adelson, a wealthy donor to his presidential campaign, favours moving the embassy. But I suspect the real reason is Trump’s vanity: He made this promise; he intends to keep it.

By Friday, he was already boasting on Twitter that he, unlike Clinton and Bush, is a man of his word.

On NAFTA too, Trump has been consistent. He routinely denounces it as “the worst deal ever,” saying it gives too much to Mexico and Canada. He says that if it isn’t completely rewritten in America’s favour he will cancel it.

The Canadian government, which is desperate to keep NAFTA largely as is, has tried everything to change Trump’s mind.

It has tried candying up to him. It has tried going around him to Congressional legislators and state governors.

It has cited facts and made rational arguments – all to little effect.

For a while, NAFTA proponents were cheered by the sheer chaos of the Trump White House. How could a president so mired in controversy hope to fundamentally rewrite America’s trade relations? More to the point, how could he hope to sell protectionism to free-trade Republican majorities in both houses of Congress?

But the White House is less chaotic these days and Trump is fully in command of his party.

Much to its embarrassment, the Republican establishment even had to reverse itself and embrace Alabama senatorial candidate Roy Moore after Trump announced his support for the alleged sex abuser.

This is the context in which an emboldened Trump made his Jerusalem decision. If this supremely self-confidant man is willing to risk peace in the Middle East just to keep a campaign promise, why would he balk at killing NAFTA?

Thomas Walkom is a national affairs writer.

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