The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump is running out of time to make his deals

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President Trump still touts himself as the dealmaker in chief, the business maven with the unique acumen to bend lesser powers to his will and restore American prestige on the world stage. But in his time in office, he has served primarily as the dealbreaker in chief, working to dismantle the diplomatic work of his predecessors, unravel historic nonproliferation and climate accords, and disrupt key institutions and alliances that underpin the international order.

As Trump enters the final year of his term, his long-promised pacts are nowhere in sight.

The supposed “deal of the century” — a lasting solution to the intractable crisis between Israelis and Palestinians — remains under wraps and may never come to fruition. On the prospects of a trade deal with China, Trump was at his most pessimistic in remarks last week, suggesting that nothing concrete may happen until after the 2020 election. Even his administration’s opening with North Korea, perhaps the most eye-catching feat of Trumpian diplomacy, looks like it may pay little dividend.

On Sunday, North Korea claimed to have conducted a “very important test” at a rocket launch site. The launch was a possible precursor to a satellite or intercontinental ballistic missile test by the year’s end — what Ri Thae Song, the dictatorial regime’s vice foreign minister in charge of U.S. affairs, warned could be an unwelcome “Christmas gift” for Trump. In November 2017, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced an end to nuclear warhead and long-range missile tests, which Trump at the time hailed as a diplomatic coup.

Trump warned Kim on Sunday that he had “too much to lose” if “he acts in a hostile way,” and urged Kim to maintain the “special relationship” the two have forged through two summits and a photo op at the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas.

Trump cited the “strong Denuclearization Agreement” the two signed in Singapore in 2018. But the document was a short, rather vague memorandum that only marked the beginning of what would be a lengthy process of negotiations over Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

Those talks have not gone well. North Korea’s envoy to the United Nations declared last week that “denuclearization” — Trump’s avowed goal in all of this — is off the negotiating table. The latest North Korean “test underlines just how far bilateral relations have deteriorated since a failed summit in Hanoi at the end of February and could presage a new round of weapons tests and hostile exchanges next year,” my colleagues noted.

“The concern now is that the president, taking Pyongyang’s refusal to denuclearize as an act of disrespect, will revert to his pre-2018 policy of banging the war drums,” wrote Daniel DePetris in the National Interest. “This would serve some political purpose during campaign season, when macho rhetoric against U.S. adversaries can get a lot of applause breaks at rallies. But it would do absolutely nothing to manage the issue before us.”

Trump probably won’t find much more success on other fronts. Amid a tariff showdown with China, he has been unable to win more than a few piecemeal concessions from Beijing. The administration may still follow through on its threat to slap further tariffs on $160 billion worth of Chinese goods next week. Trump’s lieutenants put a positive spin on proceedings, saying discussions are going “well” and a deal is “close.” But the imbroglio, which has hurt American and Chinese economies, has made Trump’s maxim that trade wars are “good, and easy to win” all the more ironic.

Possibly in the hope of keeping China talks on track, Trump has been conspicuously quiet about China’s abuses in the far-western region of Xinjiang, and has not offered much support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters. The same isn’t true for lawmakers in Congress who have, in a display of rare bipartisan unity, moved two separate anti-China bills toward the Oval Office. One condemns and imposes sanctions on Chinese officials involved in the mass detention of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang; the other upheld American commitments to Hong Kong’s distinct political freedoms and called for sanctions on individuals or entities deemed to be violating them.

Chinese officials have reacted angrily to what they perceive to be U.S. infringement on their sovereign affairs and, in recent weeks, launched a robust, nationalist social media campaign against criticism from the West. The tensions aren’t great news for Trump, whose Chinese interlocutors will be even less inclined to cave on trade matters in the face of American pressure.

And then there’s the Middle East. Readers of Today’s WorldView already know that the White House-led peace initiative between Israelis and Palestinians, entrusted to Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is likely doomed. Though the Trump administration says its details are ironed out and ready to be presented, there’s no buy-in from the Palestinians, who have been systematically sidelined and embittered by Trump’s staunchly pro-Israel approach. Israel’s own tortured domestic politics — the country is almost certain to hold its third election in a year next spring — has given the White House more excuses to kick the can down the road.

At an event hosted over the weekend by a right-leaning Jewish-American organization, Trump seemed to accept that yet another grand bargain he hoped to clinch may be out of reach. “If Jared Kushner can’t do it, it can’t be done,” he said.