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Peter Donolo is vice-chair of H+K Strategies. He served as director of communications for prime minister Jean Chrétien.

Canada, the United States and Mexico have just completed the third round of NAFTA renegotiations, yet participants from all sides are still scratching their heads because, as one Canadian source told The Globe and Mail, "really nobody knows what Donald Trump wants."

The reason for this is simple, although it can't be said in the polite language of diplomacy or trade negotiations. The fact is, the NAFTA talks have been triggered not by actual trade problems or by the need to recalibrate or adjust practices, but by politics, pure and simple – and really not so pure.

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To paraphrase Bill Clinton's mantra of 25 years ago, it's the politics, stupid. In his norm-shattering campaign, Trump set up scapegoats, from immigrants to minorities to the North American free-trade agreement, as the source of all of America's problems – or at least his supporters' roiling anger. And far from moderating in office, President Trump has continued to pour oil on these interrelated fires. In fact, he needs the rage and controversy, both to fuel his base and distract from his legislative failures.

In that sense, the world-class talent recruited around the negotiating table in Ottawa has been given an impossible mission. They could come up with any number of innovative improvements to NAFTA. But it's a little like assembling the world's greatest medical specialists to cure a hypochondriac. You can't cure an illness that doesn't exist – especially when the patient refuses to admit he's not sick.

What does that mean for the NAFTA talks? Don't hold your breath for negotiators to come up with trade solutions to a political problem. And if they do manage an agreement, count the seconds for a tweet from the President of the United States undercutting his own negotiating team. He's done it to his own White House staff, to his cabinet and to his party, time and again.

The term "win-win," which is the essence of any successful negotiation, does not exist in Donald Trump's lexicon. His approach is better described as zero-sum; the only way you can show you have won is by crushing your opponent into dust.

That means there are two likely outcomes.

Most simply, Mr. Trump may reject any negotiated agreement as not punishing enough to America's trading partners. After all, this has been his modus operandi in so many other areas, so why not here?

Conversely, he may grasp such an agreement and cloak it in the language of historic victory for America and ignominy and humiliation for Mexico and Canada. There is a method to this madness; he's used this kind of delusional hype to describe the size of the crowd at his inauguration and the historic quality of his own speech to Congress.

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For Canada, this would be a victory of sorts. It would validate the immense and complex outreach campaign the Trudeau government has deployed at all levels in the U.S. We could simply grin and bear all the Trumpian trash talk about how we got rolled or "choked like a dog" (a favourite Trump putdown), and be content for having largely saved an important trade agreement. After all, that would be the Canadian way.

But conflict can escalate out of control in unpredictable and dangerous ways. And political conflict is no exception.

In less than a year, Mexico will hold presidential elections. Mr. Trump's relentless humiliation of that country has already sunk the hopes of the incumbent PRI and boosted the chances of leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador. What would be the consequences of a NAFTA "loss" for Mexico? From the relative stability of recent decades, the Mexico-U.S. relationship could very quickly revert to earlier hostile, and even violent, patterns.

Even here in the peaceable North, the consequences are hard to predict. Would the broad Canadian consensus of support for NAFTA survive a heavily-ballyhooed Trump NAFTA victory? And what if NAFTA doesn't survive? What would our political way ahead be, after having put so many eggs in that one basket?

When you have a political arsonist as commander-in-chief, the fires can spread quickly to your neighbour's property. And they can take a long time to put out.

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