There have been a rash of analyses this week about whether a President Trump, freed from the shackles of things like norms and multilateral rules, might be better placed to advance U.S. interests in the world. When Donald Trump picked Rex Tillerson to be his secretary of state, both the president-elect and foreign policy analysts stressed the ExxonMobil chief executive’s ability to make deals. My Washington Post colleague David Ignatius writes:
Senior U.S. officials have been pondering how to take advantage of Trump’s disregard for precedent, as in his comments about Taiwan, and the confusion he has engendered on major international issues. Officials are exploring whether this approach, reckless as it may appear, may open up possibilities for U.S. diplomacy.
Several prominent foreign policy analysts have argued that there’s some benefit in creating ambiguity and uncertainty about what the United States might do abroad, especially after years of prudent and predictable Obama administration policy. But they caution that this is a high-risk strategy, which may create consternation among allies even as it enhances deterrence of adversaries.
One of those prominent foreign policy analysts in Philip Zelikow, whose American Interest essay on the topic is “The Art of the Global Deal.” And in the Atlantic, Uri Friedman makes a similar argument:
During Trump’s presidency, transactional thinking—the freewheeling pursuit of deals—could become the organizing principle of the administration’s foreign policy, rather than one element of it, as in past administrations. Previously unthinkable bargaining chips—including, apparently, a vulnerable island of 23 million people in the Taiwan Strait—could come into play. The question of what is negotiable, and what isn’t, will be a persistent source of uncertainty. Is America’s commitment to the most peripheral members of the NATO military alliance a tradable asset? What about U.S. security commitments to countries like Japan and South Korea? Developments that initially seem like one thing (a phone call suggesting closer U.S. relations with Taiwan) could turn out to be another (an opening gambit in complex U.S. negotiations with China). Trump and his team may prove to be masterful negotiators on behalf of U.S. interests.
Can wheeler-dealers like Trump and Tillerson, backed by warriors like secretary of defense nominee retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, really be able to alter the geopolitical chessboard in the United States’ favor? Could a Trump administration negotiate bilateral deals with other great powers to reduce tensions in the Pacific Rim or Eastern Europe or the Middle East?
It’s possible — but highly unlikely.
Let’s be charitable and start with the possibilities. Trump’s foreign policy worldview could carry three advantages to the negotiating table. First, Trump’s unpredictability and alleged negotiating prowess could flummox the other great powers. Based on its reactions, China was legitimately thrown by Trump’s Taiwan call. As Ignatius notes: “The Chinese aren’t used to such ambiguity from the United States. Usually Americans are the straightforward ones, while Beijing emulates Sun Tzu’s counsel to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
Second, as noted yesterday, the Trump administration doesn’t give a flying fig about the promotion of human rights and democracy. This could eliminate a thorn from U.S. negotiations with authoritarian leaders. (True, President Obama has not really pressed hard on this issue either. Obama, however, did utilize rhetoric that emphasized such norms, which probably rankled Putin and others to no end.)
Third, although Trump might not love sanctions, he does seem to believe in the implicit power of economic coercion. The United States has a large enough market to force export-dependent countries to be prepared to make some concessions on some issues. I’ve written a fair amount about this in my scholarly life. I can’t deny the possibility that Trump is the first president to successfully apply optimal tariff theory to geoeconomics.
Got your hopes up? Good. In the spirit of 2016, let me now dash them beyond all recognition.
There are three problems with the notion of major league deals with other great powers. The first is that there has to be enough for both sides to gain for the deal to be worthwhile. In the case of Russia, for example, it’s not immediately obvious what Russia can offer to the United States that would make it worthwhile for sanctions to be lifted.* Friedman points out that, “Trump has so far signaled that he will fulfill Putin’s desires in Syria and Ukraine in exchange for the mere possibility of improved relations with Russia—pretty weak stuff from a guy who claims to drive a hard bargain.” Or, as Dominic Tierney says more plainly, “Donald Trump’s Russia strategy is based on making a series of one-sided concessions in the hopes of luring Moscow into a more positive global relationship. There’s a name for this approach: appeasement.” Far from being transactional, Trump’s rhetoric on Russia suggests he’s offering a reset in the hopes of some diffuse reciprocity. The United States has been down that bargaining road before.
Second, the problem with acting as though everything is negotiable is what happens when you don’t realize that some issues are not. Trump thinks of Taiwan as simply another bargaining chip in the Sino-American relationship. Indeed, he believes it to be such an important issue for China that they will concede on other matters to secure their most important priority. I’m not a China expert, but I talk enough to them to know that China does not view it that way. Taiwan is so important to China that they will not even acknowledge that this is something that can ever be negotiated. If transactional dealmakers fail to realize that all the issue linkage in the world won’t affect some policies, they will stumble into conflicts they do not want.
There might be a deal to be made with China, though it will be a tricky one. With his half-assed Taiwan gambit, however, Trump has managed to show up President Xi Jinping and perhaps convince the Chinese president that the concessions he made to the United States in his deals with Obama were not worth it. Good luck negotiating a grand bargain now.
This leads to the last problem with transactional diplomacy: What happens after the deal is struck? How is any deal honored? For bargains to hold, there has to be credible commitments of one kind or another. Those commitments are going to be very difficult for a Trump administration to provide. Foreign ministries across the world are no doubt perusing Trump’s business career and noting that an awful lot of his deals seem to end up in litigation. We’re told time and again to take Trump’s words seriously or symbolically, but not literally. The thing is, international negotiation are kind of obsessed with, you know, the literal words on the page. Trump’s erratic rhetoric will make credible commitments harder to proffer up. Oh, and if Trump shreds existing arrangements like the Iran deal, negotiating partners are going to wonder just how long any deal with Trump would last after he exits the Oval Office.
There are ways for dealmakers to credibly commit at the global stage — multilateral agreements, international monitoring and enforcement, treaty ratification, etc. But these are the very things that Trump seems to disdain the most. This is a mistake, and, as Ted Truman notes, it’s a really inefficient form of statecraft.
It is likely that when the first financial crisis erupts in a country of interest to the United States, think Venezuela, the United States will be forced to turn to existing tools of international cooperation, such as the Fund. The new administration will likely find that it is inefficient and ineffective to try to cobble together a coalition of the willing to address every international economic problem into which it is drawn, in particular where the problem takes the form of a financial crisis and financial assistance requires an act of the US Congress.
It’s possible Trump’s foreign policy team will negotiate some unexpected deals. But it’s not likely, and it’s really not likely that they will last.