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Bolton is out, but Trump’s pivot to diplomacy is shaky

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President Trump is a self-described dealmaker, but when it comes to foreign policy agreements, the cupboard is empty. Since entering office in 2017, the American leader has instead torn up numerous deals reached under previous U.S. administrations.

He offers little in their place. Earlier this year, the White House released a list of the “historic results” the president has achieved. Few international deals were listed. Those that were, such as the renegotiated North America Free Trade Agreement and the United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement are generally viewed as incremental; the former still faces a battle in Congress.

Even Trump’s high-profile meeting in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un did not result in anything more than a vague, 400-word-long statement. Little progress has been made since, despite an aborted meeting with Kim in Hanoi and a substance-less summit in the Korean Peninsula’s demilitarized zone.

But Trump’s decision to pull out of talks in Vietnam is indicative of his international dealmaking style. He has walked away from a variety of deals: the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate change agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Deal.

Meanwhile, he has rapidly escalated tensions with other nations — most notably China, the world’s second-largest economy and a foreign-policy foe likely to be a focus of the 2020 presidential election.

But recent signs show that Trump may be eyeing a shift to a dealmaking period of his presidency. The president has recently signaled a willingness to talk to bitter enemies such as the Afghan Taliban and the leaders of Iran. He also appears worried about the economic spillover effects of the trade war with China.

And just this week, Trump forced out his combative, hawkish, mustachioed national security adviser, John Bolton. From North Korea onward, Bolton had pushed back on Trump’s dealmaking instincts.

With Bolton out of the picture and an election looming, Trump may be looking to move from the “fire and fury” stage of his presidency to the peace and pageantry stage. But after two years of chaos, can Trump finally find the “art of the deal” on international affairs?

Trump’s desire for a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is his most immediate prospect. Since Trump pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal last year and reimposed sanctions on the country, relations between Washington and Tehran have been at a low point, with the Iranian economy tanking under sanctions and the risk of conflict in the Persian Gulf this summer.

Trump may now be willing to walk back from the brink. Bloomberg News reported that Trump had discussed Monday whether he could ease sanctions on Iran in a bid to secure a meeting with Rouhani — a move that Bolton argued against, apparently leading to his ouster.

The president demurred when asked about this on Thursday, but said: “We hope that we can make a deal, and if we can’t make a deal, that’s fine too. But I think they have to make a deal.”

It’s hard to know how Iran’s leadership, particularly hard-line Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would respond. However, it’s likely they are interested in sanctions relief. Both Trump and Rouhani are expected in New York City for the U.N. General Assembly later this month, where a meeting could potentially take place.

Trump’s eagerness for meetings with foreign foes was also made apparent last week, when the president announced that he had been pursuing a meeting with Afghan Taliban commanders and their counterparts in the Afghan government at Camp David. The meeting would have taken place only days before the 18th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“I’ve met with a lot of bad people and a lot of good people,” Trump said Monday, adding that he “thought Camp David would be good [as a location], and I still do.”

Then there’s Trump’s relationship with China, which is likely to define the foreign-policy legacy of his term. The president has always maintained that he wants a deal with Beijing. On Wednesday night he announced he would delay a planned increase in tariffs on the country by two weeks as “a gesture of good will.”

Trump has also largely avoided commenting on politically controversial issues such as the detention of Muslims in the Xinjiang region and pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong for fear of harming a potential deal.

Kurt Tong, who served as U.S. consul general in Hong Kong until this summer, has said the administration has treated the demonstrations as a “second-tier” issue. The Financial Times reported earlier this summer that Tong was blocked from giving a tough speech on the Hong Kong protests for fear that it might derail trade talks with Beijing.

Trump’s approach to North Korea shows that an abrupt turn from tension to talks is possible. It also shows that such a policy may not necessarily bear fruit. Little progress has been made since Trump and Kim met in June 2018. North Korea has resumed missile testing. And even as it holds out hope for more talks this month, the window for North Korean denuclearization appears to be closing, if it was ever really open at all.

Trump may have misjudged his other potential interlocutors too. It seems unlikely, for example, that Rouhani or other Iranian officials will be as wowed by summitry as Kim. Iran wants sanctions relief, not credibility on the world stage.

And though Taliban officials have spent months in glitzy Doha hotels negotiating peace terms with the United States, they hold more leverage over Trump than a visit to Camp David can shift. Trump has long indicated he wanted to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan regardless of a peace deal; canceling the Camp David summit and claiming the talks are “dead” after a Taliban attack killed a U.S. soldier, as Trump did, doesn’t change that.

Chinese officials seem to think they have worked out Trump’s negotiation style, offering minimal concessions this week in a bid to control the public narrative ahead of resumed talks in November. They know Trump is nervous about the economy and the warning signs it is showing one year ahead of the U.S. presidential elections. Chinese President Xi Jinping doesn’t have to worry about reelection.

The most difficult factor for the president may not be his enemies, but his allies. Yes, Bolton is now gone, but his disagreement about even the manner in which he left the White House suggests he may continue to be a thorn in the side of a more agreeable Trump from afar.

Even loyal Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has a history as an Iran hawk in the House of Representatives; Pompeo’s ambition for higher elected office may explain his reticence about some of Trump’s foreign policy dealmaking.

Trump’s disorderly foreign-policy style may turn off many voters, but it also seems that his backers often thrive on the chaos. The president may want to pivot to making deals, but that isn’t as easy as breaking them.

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