Nearly three years into his tenure, the president who promised to bring his “Art of the Deal” business savvy to foreign and trade policy has few substantive deals to his name — and he is running short on time to deliver big-ticket agreements ahead of Election Day next year.
Trump has launched or proposed roughly two dozen international negotiations — from bold strokes with North Korea and the Taliban to far-fetched suggestions such as the U.S. purchase of Greenland. So far, the results include no grand bargains, some clear failures and numerous incompletes.
In recent days, his lack of dealmaking skills has been on display over Syria, where he has wavered over whether to honor commitments to protect the Kurds from Turkey and when and how many troops in the region will be brought back home.
Trump says he is seeking international agreements that protect American security and sovereignty, and he has pledged to bring millions of lost manufacturing jobs back to the United States. He tells audiences at his campaign rallies that he is succeeding where past presidents have failed and that he is not afraid to break a little crockery so long as other countries stop taking advantage of the United States.
“After decades of economic surrender, I have taken historic action to confront China’s rampant trading abuses, and we’ve made great progress, and our relationship with China is fantastic, and great things are happening,” Trump told a crowd at a reelection rally Thursday in Dallas. “You watch. They get it now. They get it.”
Trump predicted Friday that he could get the China deal sealed “quite easily” in the coming weeks, so he and Chinese President Xi Jinping could sign it on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting next month in Chile.
Trump wins praise, including from a few Democrats, for a get-tough approach to China. But he has yet to deliver the full “America First” overhaul of U.S. trade policy that he promised during the 2016 campaign.
Trump has closed just one full agreement, with South Korea. It was a fairly modest refurbishment of an existing deal. At a Cabinet meeting Monday, Trump called it a “fantastic deal for us,” adding: “It turned out even better than we thought.”
His attempt at a rebranded North American free trade pact, negotiated last year, has not been ratified and now may be imperiled by House impeachment proceedings. Trump on Monday suggested House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is holding up a vote. Other trade agreements are modest or have been described as preliminary steps toward more comprehensive accords.
Trump’s modus operandi has been consistent: denounce existing trade rules with hyperbolic language; promise a historic alternative; and then produce a decidedly more modest outcome.
Trump secured a partial trade deal with Japan last month that does not go much further than the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiated by the Obama administration with Japan and 10 other nations, from which Trump withdrew on his fourth day in the White House.
U.S. and Indian officials failed to patch together a limited agreement in time for Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to announce it during the U.N. General Assembly last month.
“What Donald Trump fails to understand is that your adversaries judge you broadly. They look at everything you do, and it’s not a real estate deal,” said Boston College presidential historian Marc Landy.
“The Chinese paid attention to what happened in the Persian Gulf,” when Trump opted not to retaliate militarily for the downing of a U.S. drone in Iran, “and they are paying attention to Syria and Trump selling out the Kurds,” Landy said.
At Trump’s direction, Vice President Pence secured Thursday what he called a temporary cease-fire in the Turkish invasion of northern Syria, which mostly held while Kurds fled.
The high-profile emergency diplomatic effort, the first of its kind under Trump, came after Trump withdrew U.S. counterterrorism forces whose presence also deterred long-sought Turkish action against Kurdish fighters allied with Washington.
Trump rejected criticism that he has given Turkey essentially everything it wanted, including the relocation of Syrian Kurdish forces that Turkey calls a terrorist threat.
“They’re saying, ‘What did Trump get out of it? What did he get out of it?’ I’ll tell you what I get out of it,” Trump said Monday. “We won’t be fighting, and we’ll bring our soldiers back home.”
Trump is far from the first U.S. president to fall short on initiatives in historic trouble spots such as North Korea, Iran and Afghanistan. The Trump approach is unique, however, in that the president intentionally places himself at the center of improvisational efforts that often stand or fall on his skills as negotiator in chief.
“I’ll meet with anybody,” Trump said last month.
“I really believe meetings are good. Worst that happens, it doesn’t work out,” Trump said, explaining his reasoning for calling off Taliban talks. “That’s okay. Even then, you get to know your opposition. Don’t forget, I’m looking at them like they’re looking at me. You get to know your opposition. You can see if they’re real.”
He has walked away, at least for now, from an attempt to secure a deal with the Taliban that would allow a gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
Trump has also failed to secure any new agreements to replace those from the Barack Obama era that he has abandoned, including the 2015 international nuclear deal with Iran, the Paris climate agreement and the TPP.
Trump’s spotty record provides an opening for Democrats who argue that Trump is an unreliable negotiator, as Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a 2020 presidential candidate, did during a televised debate last week.
“I think we need to talk about . . . the fact that our president blew it and now he’s too proud to say it. And what do we do now?” she said of Trump’s decision to pull U.S. forces from Syria, in what Trump’s critics say is a betrayal of an ally that casts the United States as a fair-weather friend.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner has repeatedly postponed release of the administration’s proposals for Arab-Israeli peace. Palestinians have rejected the package sight unseen.
Iran rebuffed Trump’s overtures to meet on the sidelines of the annual United Nations General Assembly, the latest twist to a saga in which Trump has swung between threats of war with Iran and inchoate offers to broker a new nuclear agreement.
Trump’s most striking diplomatic gambit, with North Korea, is on pause. Days after Trump predicted last month that he could soon schedule another face-to-face meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, North Korea called U.S. proposals “sickening.”
There are no new talks scheduled, but Trump counts the release of some U.S. war remains and a hiatus in North Korean nuclear and long-range missile tests as an interim victory.
Christopher R. Hill, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea who led North Korea talks for President George W. Bush, said Trump relies too heavily on his own instincts and overestimates his skills at the table: “He thinks he can befriend his interlocutor and dazzle him with his charm. The problem is, I don’t think that the North Koreans know what charm is. They are immune to charm.”
A handful of other international efforts have come up short, such as brokering a truce between U.S. partners Saudi Arabia and Qatar, or are in limbo. An early diplomatic outreach to Taiwan faded quickly, and a risky bet on the untested opposition in Venezuela did not help oust that country’s authoritarian leader.
Trump’s special envoy for Serbia and Kosovo, Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, reported significant progress from meetings this month with leaders in both countries, especially with economic development projects that could build confidence toward a peace accord.
“They are all eager to create some momentum on the economic side,” Grenell said in an interview.
Trump’s offer of a Rose Garden peace ceremony has not yet been enough, however, to launch the full peace negotiations he seeks.
He has talked about a new nuclear arms pact with Russia, and maybe with China, but pulled the United States out of one of the landmark Cold War nuclear pacts with Moscow.
He has been unable to get Germany and other European nations to abandon Russia-linked pipeline projects and has so far failed to get European countries to repatriate Islamic State fighters captured in Syria and elsewhere.
Trump has complained about rich allies that he misleadingly claimed outsource their defense to U.S. military forces stationed in their countries, but he has won no significant changes in the arrangements.
He has successfully badgered several NATO nations to increase their defense spending, though he frequently misstates the connection between such spending and U.S. contributions to the alliance.
He has negotiated the release of several Americans held overseas and got Mexico to agree to stringent new limits on asylum seekers crossing the southern border. Trump also secured at least partial agreements with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador that he says will reduce record flows of asylum seekers heading for the United States.
He touts the opening of foreign plants in the United States, such as a Louis Vuitton facility he visited Thursday in Texas, as examples of his business savvy. Economists note that job gains from such investments may be offset by losses and other damage from his tariff wars with China and Europe.
Some of Trump’s efforts at international bargaining are seemingly offhand affairs, such as musing aloud about NATO membership for Brazil, or blurting an unwelcome offer to mediate the nuclear-armed conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. He canceled a September trip to Denmark when that country foreclosed discussion of Trump’s interest in buying the self-governing Danish territory of Greenland.
In Congress, he has failed to reach any of his promised agreements with Democrats on immigration, health care or infrastructure. Gun control fizzled when Trump did not back up threats and pressure to sideline the gun lobby.
On Friday, Iowa agricultural industry groups accused Trump of failing to deliver on a deal on ethanol and biodiesel struck earlier this month. EPA plans released Thursday fall far short, leaving farmers in the lurch, Iowa Renewable Fuels Association executive director Monte Shaw told reporters.
“I thought a deal was a deal,” Radio Iowa quoted Shaw as saying. “When Donald Trump makes a deal, isn’t it a deal? Well, we had a deal, and it’s time to stick to the deal.”