NEW YORK — With the 10th anniversary of the NAFTA trade accord coming up at the turn of the year, trade officials from the U.S. and Canada sat down in New York last week to discuss its effects on the continent’s economy.
“For Canada, it is very clear that NAFTA has been a great success,” said Pamela Wallin, consul general with the Consulate Generale of Canada. She noted that in the runup to the historic trade pact, the measure had faced significant public opposition in Canada, but that her countrymen have changed their outlook.
“Canadians have moved dramatically in public opinion, and now support the measure and the idea of free trade in general,” she said. Speaking Thursday at the Foreign Policy Association’s World Leadership Forum at the New York Hilton, she noted that U.S.-Canada trade comes to $1.7 billion a day, that the average Canadian buys $5,000 in U.S. goods and services a year and that one in four jobs in Canada are believed to be linked to NAFTA.
John Melle, deputy assistant U.S. trade representative for North America, said the pact had also benefited the U.S., and was one reason for the Bush administration’s current effort to negotiate new trade deals.
Still, he called trade pacts “a second-best option” in promoting free trade. In an ideal world, he said, “each country should unilaterally open its markets.”
But failing that, he said the mandate for USTR negotiators is “do as much as you can, be as ambitious as you can.”
Referring to the recent collapse of the World Trade Organization talks in Cancún, he said the administration would likely focus on bilateral deals, as well as multilateral pacts like the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas.
“I expect that we’ll make further announcements over the coming months,” he said.
He added that the administration believes that provisions in NAFTA and in the terms of the quota-lifting deal struck during the Uruguay Round of WTO talks save the typical American family of four $1,300 to $2,000 a year.
Both trade officials acknowledged there remain some areas of contention among the three countries, particularly on agricultural and lumber issues. But they said the promotion of trade is still solid.
A representative of the Mexican government who had been scheduled to speak at the panel did not attend, organizers said.
Melle said trade liberalization is one of the the prime drivers of economic growth today.
“International trade is growing faster than the domestic economies of the world,” he said.
In response to a question about the growing movement of protest against free trade — as evidenced by demonstrators at the recent Cancún meeting — Canada’s Wallin said the protests have influenced the tone of trade talks.
“It really has forced people to look at how the new generation responds and put some of those issues” on the bargaining table, she said.
Melle said some of the unrest has been caused by misperception. He said trade deals are “seen as trumping other concerns or noncommercial concerns,” a view he said was inaccurate.