President Trump pitched his candidacy to a large degree on his negotiating prowess. He advertised himself as a closer, the author of “The Art of the Deal,” and derided U.S. negotiators for making “dumb” deals. We don’t win anymore, he claimed over and over. As the Economist recollected:
Mr Trump was carried to victory by telling voters that incompetent and corrupt elites either blundered or conspired to send manufacturing jobs out of America, when they could have stayed. He did not just attack such free-trade deals as the NAFTA pact with Mexico and Canada, or the forthcoming Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) between America and 11 other Asia-Pacific countries. He claimed—with no evidence—that America had hired “stupid” negotiators who failed to read what was in trade deals, while devious foreign officials “know where every comma is”. Politicians, he added, had colluded in this betrayal of America because “they get massive campaign contributions from others that want to make deals with China, and want to make deals with Mexico.”
He has been in office for nearly seven months, and we have yet to see his negotiating prowess. He has pulled out of the Paris climate agreement (apparently under the mistaken belief that it required us to do a bunch of things that hurt our economy) and withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
With regard to NAFTA, the administration (wisely, in our view) downgraded its demands from a total rewrite to a short list of middling concerns. (“The United States Trade Representative Office published the Trump administration’s detailed objectives for renegotiating the North American free-trade agreement. Contrary to President Donald Trump’s rhetoric about NAFTA in the past, the objectives document’s overall tone is very much in line with a much-needed modernization of NAFTA.”) We’ll see whether he reaches even those reduced objectives.
Middle East peace? Even Jared Kushner has figured out that isn’t happening anytime soon.
NATO funding? Trump still seems to think NATO countries are supposed to pay that money to us or to some NATO checking account. The Post’s Glenn Kessler reported in May: “At the moment, only five of the 28 members exceed the guideline — with the United States leading the way at 3.6 percent. The other members that exceed the guideline are Greece, Estonia, Britain and Poland, but the perceived threat from Russia has prompted other nations to bolster their defense spending. In 2016, median spending by NATO members on defense was 1.21 percent of GDP, but it’s still eight years away from the deadline. The guideline is not legally binding.” (American presidents before Trump urged NATO members to spend more; and NATO members before Trump arrived on the scene were making some effort to boost spending. “The alliance as a whole increased defense spending for the first time in two decades in 2015. And [in 2016], 22 of 28 NATO members increased their defense budgets. If the U.S. is removed from the equation, the group increased its spending by 3.8% in 2016. Including the U.S., overall spending rose by 2.9%.”)
The recent leaks of tapes of conversations between Trump and leaders of Mexico and Australia demonstrated again how inept he is when it comes to international diplomacy. His “dealmaking” skills amount to whining and threatening. Career diplomats Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky observe:
Despite his bluster in both conversations on the building of the border wall that Mexico is going to pay for and the agreement to take a limited number of refugees from Australia, it’s stunning how quickly the master of the “Art of the Deal” backs off his opening positions and implicitly concedes that they were just ploys.
After the Mexican President adamantly but courteously opines that “Mexico cannot pay for that wall,” Trump responds “but you cannot say that to the press,” all but admitting that he knows Mexico won’t pay for the wall. He is far more concerned — even obsessed — that the Mexican President not undermine his political position at home.
And by the end of his very tough talk with [Australian Prime Minister Malcolm] Turnbull, who keeps pressing Trump on Obama’s commitment to take the 1,250 refugees who had tried to enter Australia by boat, Trump succumbs, arguing to save face that it’s a “disgusting deal” but he’d honor “my predecessor’s deal.”
Trump isn’t coming close to “winning.” (“These calls demonstrate in stunning fashion that, however unpleasant the conversations, both [Mexican President] Enrique Pena Nieto and Turnbull got what they wanted and, in the process, the best of Trump.”)
Now that international leaders have figured out that he’s all bark and no bite, they’ll likely be even harder to persuade in future negotiations. As disagreeable as he may be, the president has gotten a reputation as a patsy. His temper tantrums and empty threats might work in New York real estate, but these techniques are ill-suited to the international stage.
And domestically, Trump was entirely unconvincing in the health-care debate. He never mastered the details nor was able to cajole lawmakers to get behind him. His technique amounted to adolescent bullying and content-free cheerleading. Likewise, he couldn’t stop Congress from passing by a veto-proof majority tough new sanctions on Russia — but he did manage to give Vladimir Putin what he wanted (a Syria cease-fire) with nothing in return. He gives a bevy of autocratic regimes (e.g. Turkey, China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt) huge PR wins by public fawning without obtaining anything in return.
Trump lashes out on Twitter against foes and critics (as he did again this morning), but it has become the telltale sign of weakness. He cannot close a deal to save his political life — or hold his own with more experienced negotiators. He’d do better to stay off the phone and on the golf course, leaving international dealings to more convincing and better-prepared subordinates.