The Trump administration’s renegotiation of NAFTA is decidedly underwhelming, the product of a toxic process that made only a modest modification of the original deal. The administration’s renaming of NAFTA, however — it will henceforth be known as the USMCA, for the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement — could prove to be a stroke of political and marketing genius.
Names really matter, and politicians should give as much thought to them as corporations do. Amazon, Google and Apple, for instance, have been established as iconic names, which probably helps those companies market their services and maintain market share.
So what is wrong with NAFTA? It’s such a nice, easy-to-pronounce acronym, reminiscent of the word “nifty.” But some of my fellow U.S. citizens might notice that the North American Free Trade Agreement does not include the name of the largest nation party to it. In fact, they might think the reference to “North American” makes it sound as if U.S. is being swallowed up by some larger entity. With USMCA, by contrast, it is quite clear which country comes first.
That said, this ordering may be slightly problematic for Mexico and especially Canada, now relegated to third place. But those smaller and less powerful countries will sign off on the new deal anyway. Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s foreign minister, even quoted Shakespeare: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
When I see USMCA, I also think of “United States Marine Corps,” a connection Donald Trump himself has noted. Of course the Marines have nothing to do with international trade policy, but given the public’s longstanding confidence in the military, the association is unlikely to hurt politically. Other people may confuse USMCA with USCMA, or the United States Catholic Mission Association, another positive connotation.
This next point may sound slightly cynical, but here goes: Perhaps being so easy to say and remember has been part of NAFTA’s problem. The sad reality is that voters do not love the idea of free trade once it is made concrete to them, and both Barack Obama and Trump campaigned against NAFTA in its current form. So maybe every time people heard the name NAFTA, they were reminded of how much they disliked it.
I recall, more than a decade ago, hearing talk of a supposed “NAFTA superhighway,” a series of roads that would supposedly bring the three NAFTA countries under some kind of joint, conspiratorial rule, enforced by the movement of vehicles on these connector roads and sometimes in league with Satan himself. The alternative phrase — “USMCA Superhighway” — doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily, so maybe it will be harder to drum up fake news about the new deal.
There is yet another advantage to the new name: Many politicians, especially Democrats, are on record as opposing NAFTA. The change of name gives them a chance to rebrand their opinions, even if they do not wish to do so right now when Trump is touting his victory.
Looking back, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt) had a pretty good name for its time. It conveyed that there was in fact a general agreement, and that branding sold well enough in an earlier, more multilateral era. It might have sounded dull and technocratic, but that was OK for policies which were ... dull and technocratic. Much worse, however, was the 1995 relabeling into the World Trade Organization, a name which to many people sounds globalist, faceless and sinister. They might as well have called it SPECTRE, the name of the criminal group in many James Bond novels and films.
Southerners had the right idea when they labeled America’s 1828 protectionist legislation the “tariff of abominations.” That name has stuck to this day. Who would defend such a tax? But in those days the federal government relied more heavily on tariffs for basic revenue, so the argument for that tariff arguably is stronger than is the case for protectionism today.
What about the Trans-Pacific Partnership? I have to give that one a thumbs down. “Trans” sounds conspiratorial, like a power transversing borders, as if no single country is in charge of its destiny. It also communicates to voters a vague sense that something big is going to change (e.g., “transform”), not always a positive connotation. If Trump relabels that agreement, it could also be a step forward.
Of course, government policies should be judged on what they do, not on what they’re called. But do not underestimate the power of a name to influence public perception. If only every trade agreement could have a name as short, sweet and popular as, say, Social Security.