Cross Country Checkup

Former NAFTA negotiator calls Trump's 'bluster' on trade deals offensive

When Michael Wilson negotiated NAFTA 25 years ago, the most tense moment was leaving a baseball game early. He calls Trump's divisive approach today on trade negotiations 'dangerous.'

Canadian representative Michael Wilson brought U.S., Mexico together on free trade agreement

U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills, seated in the centre, with her Mexican and Canadian counterparts, as well as all three countries' leaders, as they sign the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1992. (Pat Sullivan/The Associated Press)

When Carla Hills and Michael Wilson negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement from across the table more than 25 years ago, they were firm but friendly.

According to Wilson, Canada's representative and former finance minister, discussions only became tense during a baseball game.

"Jaime Serra [Mexico's negotiator] took us out of the ball game and 10 minutes later there was a triple play," Wilson said with a laugh.

"It would have been the only triple play I've ever seen."

So, when asked by Cross Country Checkup host Duncan McCue whether U.S. President Donald Trump's trade rhetoric would lead to an all-out trade war, Wilson and Hills both said the "bluster" wasn't helpful.

Former Canadian Ambassador Michael Wilson addresses the audience at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C., in April 2006. (Chris Greenberg/Associated Press)

Hills was the U.S. trade representative at the time, serving in the administration of George H. W. Bush. Wilson was a cabinet minister in Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservative government.

Both told Checkup that Trump's bluster is concerning and believe the U.S. president is wrong to tear up NAFTA. Wilson says Trump's moves are ill-thought out. Hills is more direct, saying it could cost millions of jobs.

On Sunday, Checkup crossed the border to Madison, Wis., where McCue, alongside guest co-host Rob Ferrett from Wisconsin Public Radio, took calls on Trump, Trudeau, trade and tariffs from Canadians and Americans alike.

Many callers expressed worry that a trade dispute between the United States and Canada could negatively affect jobs and pocketbooks. That's something Hills agrees with.

"To tear [NAFTA] up and not build on it would be a disaster," she said.

'Lack of appreciation' for NAFTA

President Trump has repeatedly criticized NAFTA, calling it the "worst trade deal in history," and going so far as threatening to terminate it if America's trade partners didn't agree to his terms.

The agreement was designed to link the Canadian, American and Mexican economies and build a larger market.

Carla Hills is pictured speaking at a gala event in Grand Rapids, Mich., in June 2016. (Allison Farrand/Associated Press)

While Hills, a former ambassador and now CEO of an international trade consultancy, agrees that the 25-year-old agreement needs an overhaul, it has been good for the countries including — yes — the United States.

"We have created the most competitive region in the world," she said, adding that NAFTA, "created a $19 trillion market with 490 million consumers."

Beyond economic growth, NAFTA offers the countries a mechanism to settle disputes with tariffs. As producers across the trade zone face the repercussions of heavy tariffs on steel and aluminum, Hills believes Trump is undervaluing the apparent benefits of NAFTA.

"Some of the rhetoric and some of the positions taken show a lack of appreciation of the agreement," she said.

Trump approach 'offensive'

It's undeniable that trade negotiations can be tough. Each party comes with their own agendas and requirements. Compromise is key.

But the current U.S. approach has been "offensive," says Wilson, referring to Trump's justification for imposing steel and aluminum tariffs as a national security move.

"We fly planes together in NORAD protecting the airspace of the United States and Canada," he said citing the North American Aerospace Defence Command.

On Dec. 17. 1992., Prime Minister Brian Mulroney signs the North American Free Trade Agreement in Ottawa as Michael Wilson looks on. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

"People have to stand back and say, 'Look, let's get back to basics here. What are we trying to achieve?'

Wilson thinks U.S. is targeting the wrong country in this trade dispute. China, he says, is a much larger threat.

Indeed, China is a growing economy and trade partner for NAFTA countries.

"To undercut two [Canada and Mexico] key partners in that supply chain is undercutting the United States and North America going forward in the competition with China," he said.

Ultimately, Trump may decide that he doesn't want a multi-lateral free trade agreement. That's "fine," Wilson said. Hills, however, is unequivocal in the danger that presents.

"If we tear this up and walk away from it we are going to lose, by any calculation, millions — millions — of jobs," she told Checkup.

"It's going to hurt all three of our economies very, very much."

Written by Jason Vermes. Interviews produced by Sheyfali Saujani and Erin Pettit.