If there is a well-known phrase in Donald Trump’s “Art of the Deal” as written by Tony Schwartz, it is “truthful hyperbole.” One could argue that truthful hyperbole lies behind much of Trump’s more unconventional foreign policies. He repeatedly brags about his dealmaking with North Korea — even though no actual deal has been reached. Trump insists that NAFTA was an awful trade deal, and that the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) is so much better that it will pay for his border wall. The president has vowed to force U.S. allies to shoulder more of the burden on defense.
It is possible to squint very hard and see a quasi-logic to how this might work on the global stage. If truthful hyperbole is warning allies about serious repercussions unless they agree to trade or security concessions, then it might be useful. If truthful hyperbole means praising U.S. adversaries to the hilt in the hope that flattery will help induce policy change, maybe it will work. In the international relations field, we would call these things “bluffing” and “inducements,” but if Trump wants to call them truthful hyperbole, that’s cool — so long as it works.
Before his inauguration, I expressed serious reservations about whether this kind of bluster would yield much in the way of foreign policy concessions. And as I pointed out last week, many of the Trump administration’s most visible successes — the economy, increased NATO spending on defense, the campaign against the Islamic State — represent straight-line continuations of Obama administration policies.
The more one examines where Trump has deviated from the status quo, the more the promise of truthful hyperbole begins to disintegrate. His administration keeps promising great things, and not delivering on them.
Take the proposed USMCA. After more than a year of wrangling, a deal has been signed. The likelihood of Congress ratifying it, however, seems lower by the day. It’s not like free-trade Republicans are thrilled with it:
In a classic case of truthful hyperbole, Axios’s Jonathan Swan reports that Trump’s deputy trade representative, C.J. Mahoney, “said he figured the USMCA could get through Congress with huge bipartisan support by the end of April.” In the real world, however, Swan reports something different:
Influential House Democrats say they won't even negotiate with the White House until Trump stops threatening to withdraw from NAFTA and lifts his tariffs on Canada's and Mexico's steel and aluminum.
Meanwhile, Republicans oppose important parts of USMCA, including its weakening of the NAFTA provision that lets foreign companies sue governments for mistreatment. . . .
[Wisconsin Rep. Ron] Kind . . . gives Lighthizer credit for “doing a lot more outreach.” But he added that, like many of his colleagues, he won’t back the trade deal until Trump lifts those steel and aluminum tariffs. Retaliation for these tariffs is hurting Badger State farmers and manufacturers, he said.
Trump, meanwhile, seems totally unwilling to budge on that point.
So that sounds like it is going super-well. Or at least as well as Trump’s other trade policies. Axios’s Dion Rabouin reported that the Institute for International Finance analyzed the effect of Trump’s trade war with China. The report finds that U.S. businesses are being hurt, very few firms are relocating production facilities back to the United States, and the big winners of this trade war are “India, Brazil, Cambodia and other countries who can offer substitute products and locations.”
Meanwhile, my Post colleagues Simon Denyer and Min Joo Kim report that after intense pressure from the Trump administration for South Korea to boost its payments for housing U.S. troops, the result has been an interim deal:
The deal was a stopgap agreement, covering only one year instead of the usual five, after drawn-out negotiations caused by Trump’s determination to get Seoul to pay substantially more.
The United States had initially demanded a doubling of the South Korean contribution, but in the end had to settle for an increase of 8.2 percent for the first year, equivalent to the rise in Seoul’s total defense budget this year. South Korea has agreed to pay 1.0389 trillion won, or around $920 million, up from the 960 billion won a year it paid from 2014 to 2018. . . .
The two sides held 10 rounds of negotiations last year, failing to reach agreement before the previous deal expired at the end of 2018.
They agreed to set up a working group to handle cost-sharing negotiations in the future, stipulating that if no new agreement is reached by the end of this year, “to prevent the absence of an agreement, the two sides can extend the previous agreement upon mutual consent.”
It is indisputable that the administration got more favorable terms. It is definitely disputable whether the extra $50 million or so was really worth 10 rounds of negotiations and tensions with a key ally.
Even when this administration manages to negotiate deals, they are of the meager variety. Truthful hyperbole does not seem to be yielding spectacular results. Of course, it is worth remembering just how Trump explained that term in his book: “People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.”
The foreign targets of Trump’s truthful hyperbole ain’t buying the salesmanship. The domestic targets might be more gullible.