It’s put-up-or-shut-up time for President Trump.
He has been acting like an arsonist toward America’s international obligations. So far he has exited the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Paris climate accord and now the Iran nuclear deal, while launching renegotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) and bad-mouthing NATO and the World Trade Organization (WTO).
According to Trump, the Iran deal is a “horrible, one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made.” NAFTA is the “worst trade deal ever made.” The Paris accord was a “disaster for this country.” TPP was a “very bad deal for the United States.” KORUS is an “unacceptable, horrible deal” and a “job killer.” The WTO is “unfair to U.S.” And NATO “is not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States.”
While denigrating existing accords, he has vowed to negotiate new ones that will be simply stupendous. In saying sayonara to the TPP, he said, “I like bilateral. I think it’s better for our country … And I much would prefer a bilateral deal … directly with Japan.” In declaring au revoir to the Paris accord, he said that “something could happen … and if it happens, that’ll be wonderful.” In bidding “khodahafez” to the Iranian nuclear accord on Tuesday, he vowed: “We will … find a real, comprehensive and lasting solution to the Iranian nuclear threat.”
All this is in keeping with Trump’s boasts that he is the World’s Greatest Dealmaker. As he tweeted in 2014: “Deals are my art form. Other people paint beautifully or write poetry. I like making deals, preferably big deals. That’s how I get my kicks.”
So how is the dealmaker-in-chief doing in striking beautiful new bargains? Not so well. After nearly 16 months in office, he has successfully renegotiated exactly one deal — with South Korea. And trade experts described the differences between the old agreement and the new one as “minimal.”
The NAFTA renegotiations are still going on. But Trump hasn’t made any effort to renegotiate the TPP, the Paris accord, the WTO or NATO — much less bilateral trade accords with Japan or anyone else. Now the supreme test of his negotiating skills will come with Iran and North Korea, where he has set the bar for success extraordinarily high.
The onus will be on Trump to conclude a deal with Iran that has no “sunset provisions” but does have even more intrusive inspection requirements along with limits on Iran’s ballistic missiles and its “destabilizing activities.” To achieve this feat, Trump will have to either make a credible threat of force against Iran — which risks an outbreak of war — or reapply international sanctions that were lifted after the deal was reached in 2015. That will not be easy to do, given that all of the other parties (France, Britain, Germany, Russia, China, Iran) oppose his decision to void a deal that, as even his own secretary of state acknowledges, Iran is complying with. Indeed, the president has been demanding a better deal for months under threat of a pullout — with no luck.
Trump claims that President Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry “could have made a much better deal.” Now he will get his chance to show that he can do what they couldn’t.
At the same time, Trump will have to conclude a deal with North Korea that is more robust than the Iranian deal he just torched. That means North Korea will have to agree to verification procedures of unprecedented intrusiveness, and it will not just have to freeze or downsize its nuclear program but eradicate it entirely. Oh, and North Korea, just like Iran, will have to dismantle its nonnuclear programs — in its case, ballistic missiles and chemical and biological arsenals.
All of the programs are much more advanced in North Korea. While Iran has the infrastructure to develop nuclear weapons, North Korea already has an estimated 20 to 60 nuclear warheads. The very imprecision of that figure reveals how hard it will be to enforce any agreement: If you don’t know the size of North Korea’s arsenal, how can you be certain Kim Jong Un has dismantled everything? But rest assured. The World’s Greatest Dealmaker says, “We’re not going to be played, okay?” — not like previous administrations.
Count me as skeptical that Trump will conclude better deals that are “permanent, verifiable, [and] irreversible.” I’d say the odds of a fiasco — Iran grows more, not less, menacing; North Korea gets sanctions relaxed in return for empty promises of “denuclearization” — are higher than the odds of success. But I will be happy to be proved wrong. If Trump can actually get better deals out of Tehran and Pyongyang, he will deserve that Nobel Peace Prize his supporters are already nominating him for. Only one thing is certain: Whatever Trump does or does not achieve, he will claim it’s the “greatest” deal ever.