Bluster/distract/cave won’t work

Donald Trump’s much-vaunted negotiating skills have produced virtually nothing in the past eight months of his singularly unproductive presidency. What do we know about his approach to negotiating? How is it working?

Trump’s first stage is bluster: locked and loaded, fire and fury. He threatens the worst possible outcome for his opponent, ignoring the implications for himself and his country. He has done this not only with North Korea, but also with the repeal of Obamacare (watch out! it’s collapsing!) and the budget ceiling (I’ll close down the government unless I get my wall!). Not to mention the nuclear deal with Iran (the worst deal ever!). This bluster attracts a lot of media attention, but it ignores what is crucial in negotiation: your own alternative to a negotiated agreement.

Then Trump quickly tacks in a different direction, before it is apparent that bluster isn’t working. Anything else will do, so long as it distracts from the main item he has put on the agenda. A hurricane will serve the purpose, as will a campaign trip to North Dakota or some other domestic political distraction like the competence of Speaker Ryan or Senate majority leader McConnell. The more bizarre the distraction, the better, since its purpose is to make the original issue evaporate, a bit like the magician’s use of distraction to make a rabbit disappear.

Then Trump caves on the original issue. He did this yesterday at the UN Security Council, accepting a resolution that falls far short of his announced goal of ending trade with North Korea, but only after taking advantage of the distraction caused by Hurricane Irma.

He is getting ready to do something similar with the Iran nuclear deal: he may claim that Iran is not complying (bluster) and throw the issue to the Congress (distraction), but he won’t withdraw from the deal (that’s the caving) because he knows by now it is better than no deal (that’s what the Israelis and Saudis are telling him). Instead, he’ll do something I think is quite sensible: focus on Iranian (mis)behavior in the Middle East, which is a real and growing problem.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) got this treatment. Trump feinted about withdrawal, then allowed months of distractions and ended up with a renegotiation the Canadians and Mexicans were happy to engage in, because they’ve got complaints about the current decades-old agreement as well. He did not do this with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), from which he simply withdrew. But that story may not be over yet. I suspect the US will eventually find its way back in, if the countries of the region want to continue the process.

There are of course things Trump just doesn’t like, so the bluster is real. The climate change treaty is one of those, though the recent storms seem to be making some Republicans think maybe we need to do something to reduce their likelihood, even if they don’t agree on human causation. I won’t be surprised if Trump, who once supported action on climate change as a businessman, changes his mind as well.

How is bluster/distract/cave working? Well enough domestically for Trump to retain his core support. But internationally it is a disaster. Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, shame on you, is the general rule in international affairs. Watch the Russians, who are reacting vigorously against a president they once thought they owned. The Chinese aren’t likely to be friendly about it either. Trump is going to find himself where he did in the real estate business: a creditor only third tier institutions and individuals will do business with. It is no accident that he gets praise from people whose governance is notoriously corrupt.

Bluster/distract/cave won’t work on serious people, who learn quickly that all they really need to do is wait Trump out, so long as they have a decent alternative to a negotiated agreement.

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