“Today, President Trump fulfilled one of his key promises to the American people,” Mr. Lighthizer said on Thursday. “For years, politicians have called for the renegotiation of this agreement, but President Trump is the first to follow through with that promise.”
The move was met with skepticism by organizations that have long pressed for major changes to Nafta and have argued that Mr. Trump had already fallen short of his promises on trade.
“Donald Trump promised that he’d fix Nafta on his first day in office,” Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, an environmental group, said in a statement. “One hundred and nineteen days later, he has managed to send Congress a two-page letter that fails to include any real plan to fix a deal that has undermined environmental protections, eliminated jobs, undercut wages, polluted our air and water, and fueled climate change.”
The page-long letter stood in stark contrast to an eight-page version circulated on Capitol Hill in March, which proposed adding a provision to allow tariffs to be reinstated if a flood of imports threatened to harm a domestic industry. It also said the Trump administration would seek to adjust the agreement’s rules of origin, or how much of a product must be made in a Nafta country.
The notice sent on Thursday’s instead mentioned repeatedly that any changes would be the result of congressional consultation, and pledged close coordination and “transparency” with lawmakers throughout the renegotiation process. It laid out the framework for the talks in only the most general of terms. The letter was required under a law that mandates that the president give Congress at least 90 days’ notice before opening a trade negotiation.
“In particular, we note that Nafta was negotiated 25 years ago, and while our economy and businesses have changed considerably over that period, Nafta has not,” Mr. Lighthizer said in the letter.
He noted that “digital trade” had barely begun when the agreement took effect. And new provisions will be needed, he said, to address intellectual property rights, state-owned enterprises and labor and environmental measures.
“Moreover, establishing effective implementation and aggressive enforcement of the commitments made by our trading partners under our trade agreements is vital to the success of those agreements and should be improved in the context of Nafta,” Mr. Lighthizer said.
Mexico’s Economy Ministry released a statement welcoming the announcement, although it did not address any of the specific issues outlined in the letter Mr. Lighthizer sent to Congress. “Mexico reaffirms its willingness to update Nafta to face the challenges of the twenty-first century,” it said. “The countries of North America deserve a modern instrument to regulate their trade relations.”
Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray said: “We are prepared. We are ready.”
Mexican officials have been eager to begin the negotiations with an eye to concluding them before Mexico’s presidential election campaign begins next year.
Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, and his cabinet ministers have repeatedly said that Canada welcomes the opportunity to renegotiate and modernize Nafta. The Canadian government did so again on Thursday.
“We are at an important juncture that offers us an opportunity to determine how we can best align Nafta to new realities — and integrate progressive, free and fair approaches to trade and investment,” said Chrystia Freeland, the minister of foreign affairs who has been charged by Mr. Trudeau to focus on relations with the Trump administration. “We are steadfastly committed to free trade in the North American region and to ensuring that the benefits of trade are enjoyed by all Canadians.”
Canadians have long had their own problems with the trade agreement. The country has frequently been at the losing end of challenges brought under the agreement by American corporations.