Butterfly Effect: The Art of (Not Blowing Up) the Deal - OZY | A Modern Media Company


The USMCA and the Afghan deal are the only evidence Trump has to show that he’s done more than tear up other pacts.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

President Donald Trump fancies himself the consummate deal-maker. He won in 2016 promising to undo key global agreements struck by his predecessor, Barack Obama. And true to his word, he ripped apart everything from the Iran nuclear agreement, which he called a “disaster” and the “worst deal ever,” to the Paris climate change accord, which he claimed was biased toward China and India.

As Trump seeks reelection, there are just two standout international pacts he can claim to have sealed. The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which replaces the North American Free Trade Agreement, came into force on Wednesday, while the Afghan peace deal with the Taliban was signed in February. The trouble? Four months before the election, these newborn deals are already in the emergency room, battling for survival. And how Trump manages these agreements could determine what he can show voters as wins, as his campaign against presumptive Democratic Party nominee Joe Biden heats up.

The USMCA addresses many of the concerns that Trump and others suspicious of free trade have had about NAFTA. It strengthens environmental and labor regulations, places quotas on Canadian and Mexican car manufacturing, improves intellectual property safeguards and gives American firms and farmers greater access to Canada’s dairy market. But the Trump administration is now considering reimposing tariffs on Canadian aluminum following a flood of imports, unless Ottawa restricts sales on its own. That proposal invited a stern warning earlier this week from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who said any such move would hurt both countries. There would be no reason for Canada to not impose retaliatory tariffs, and a trade tit for tat could rapidly suck in the USMCA.

In Afghanistan, meanwhile, Trump faces allegations of underplaying intelligence reports that suggest Russia has been paying Taliban-affiliated militants bounties to kill U.S. soldiers. Trump has claimed that he wasn’t briefed on the matter because intelligence agencies “did not find this info credible.” But the New York Times, which first broke the story, reports that Trump received a written briefing on the bounties in February. While Democrats raise questions over Trump’s silence on the intelligence reports over the past four months, the revelations once again bring to the fore a conundrum that’s central to the Afghan deal: Can the U.S. and the international community trust the Taliban?

We’ve all seen Trump’s natural instincts to blow things up. But can he sit in a room with Trudeau and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a similarly mercurial leader who will visit Washington next week, to iron out differences without taking steps that could lead to the unraveling of the USMCA? And if he can’t, can he authorize U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to lead the effort, with clear instructions that the broader USMCA must be shielded?

With Afghanistan, can Trump quietly — not on Twitter — use the bounty revelations to secure greater commitments from the Taliban that it will desist from targeting U.S. soldiers? Can he pick up the phone and tell Russian President Vladimir Putin that since both Washington and Moscow want the U.S. to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, it serves the interests of neither to have paid hits on American troops?

The pandemic has turned economic and geopolitical calculations upside down, but both these deals are tangible deliverables that Trump can cite to voters to demonstrate how he has fashioned a new trade relationship more beneficial to Americans, and ended a two-decade war and brought back soldiers from faraway battlefields.

These pacts are broadly popular in the United States. A March YouGov poll found 41 percent of Americans supportive of the deal with the Taliban, and only 16 percent opposed to it. In a January poll by Monmouth University, only 5 percent of Americans said they opposed the USMCA.

Trump has little other success to show on the foreign policy front. Despite imposing crippling sanctions, he hasn’t been able to bring Iran to the negotiating table for fresh talks; North Korea remains evasive on nuclear disarmament; and Venezuela continues to be ruled by President Nicolás Maduro. It could hurt Trump’s campaign if either the USMCA or the Afghan deal were to detonate before the election.

But can he stop himself from pulling the pin?

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

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