In the 20 years since it entered into force, the North American Free Trade Agreement has been both lauded and attacked in the United States. But to properly assess NAFTA’s record, it is important to first be clear about what the agreement has actually done. Economically speaking, the answer is a lot.
NAFTA was the first comprehensive free-trade agreement to join developed and developing nations, and it achieved broader and deeper market openings than any trade agreement had before.
NAFTA did that by eliminating tariffs on all industrial goods, guaranteeing unrestricted agricultural trade between the United States and Mexico, opening up a broad range of service sectors, and instituting national treatment for cross-border service providers. It also set high standards of protection for patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets.
NAFTA ignited an explosion in cross-border economic activity. Today, Canada ranks as the United States’ largest single export market, and it sends 98 percent of its total energy exports to the United States, making Canada the United States’ largest supplier of energy products and services. Mexico is the United States’ second-largest single export market. Over the past two decades, a highly efficient and integrated supply chain has developed among the three North American economies. Intraregional trade flows have increased by roughly 400 percent.
North Americans not only sell more things to one another; they also make more things together. About half of U.S. trade with Canada and Mexico takes place between related companies, and the resulting specialization has boosted productivity in all three economies. NAFTA has also caused cross-border investment to soar.
In spite of this impressive economic record, NAFTA has its critics. Most of those who attack it on economic grounds focus on Mexico, not Canada, and claim that the partnership is one-sided: that NAFTA is Mexico’s gain and America’s pain. But the economic data prove otherwise.