Art of the Deal, the end justifies the means?
One year into the Trump presidency, I am sure people who follows American politics have become more or less familiarized with his personality. Since his younger days, he has been known as someone who craves attention and publicity, even going as far as to pretending to be his personal assistant and leaking his extramarital affairs to the press.
At the same time, he is a person who is keen on utilizing dialogues and negotiation to achieve his goal. If one glance at his “Art of the Deal” chapter 2 “Trump Cards: Element of the Deal”, one can glean how the basics of his contextual framework, which can be summarized through the subheading accordingly into “Think big, protect the downside and the upside will take care of itself, maximize your options, know your market, use your leverage, enhance your location, deliver the goods, contain the costs and have fun” (p.45~65). If we look at what he is doing in foreign policy, I think we can say that he has been the same person since 1987 when the book was published as he said in its opening “My style of deal making is quite simple and straightforward. I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing and pushing to get what I’m after. Sometimes I settle for less than I sought, but in most cases I still end up with what I want. So in his mind, he acts as if he is “Don” Vito Corleone, making offers that others “can’t refuse”, and when you are the President of the US, you can do that.
I will base my comments on Trump’s foreign policy fundamentals on his interview with Oprah Winfrey back in 1988. In that interview, he was critical of how US is getting “ripped off” in international trade by countries such as Japan. He comments on the trade deficit US has with its allies, how Japan conducts unfair and protectionist policies in their domestic market to prevent foreign competition but take advantage of free market economy in the US. However, he says that the Japanese are “smart” and deserves respect for their shrewd trade practices, and it is the US’ lack of retaliation that is making this phenomenon possible. Three decades later, if we replace Japan with China, we will realize that though his primary target has changed, how he thinks and what he is trying to achieve has not changed at all.
In US politics, discerning the personality of the President is easier in the realm of foreign politics than domestic politics as in the latter, the power of the executive is balanced by the legislative and the judiciary branch. As we know in the domestic politics arena, he has had numerous step back and can very possibly lose the upcoming midterm elections. In foreign policy however, we can easily decipher his true manners of politicking into the following, US is still the global hegemon since the end of Cold War, he has all the leverage he can have thus the upside will take care of itself should he aim high and maximizes his options. His market is still his rust belt Reagan Democrats whom should he deliver the goods will still propel him to victory in 2020 and have fun trolling the “swamp” and play golf at his own golf courses. Up until now, in numerous topics, he has stuck to his playbook and to this point he has enjoyed much more success, which to him is a lot of press and attention.
In the month of April, Trump has hosted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The European leaders hoped to convince Trump not to abandon the Iran nuclear deal which Trump has repeatedly referred to as a policy failure and to retract his policy of “fair trade” (Not a coffee blend). By the time they left, both leaders had largely given up trying to convince Trump he was wrong and instead focused on how to adjust according to his demands. Merkel argued to exempt Europe from steel and aluminum tariffs that would take effect on May 1, which was soundly rejected by Trump, who pressed for “reciprocal trade”. Similarly, on the issue of NATO, Trump continued to criticize to Merkel’s face his long standing grievance that he believes the US is paying too much. This would be considered as diplomatic affront but to Trump, he is simply “pushing and pushing and pushing to get what he’s after. As a brief sidenote, in 2006, members of NATO pledged to spend 2 percent of its GDP on defense, however, currently, only the five relatively minor countries beside the US are meeting this goal, with Germany at 1.2 percent.
Marcon, whom many in the media sought solace in after Trump won in 2016, and Abe have been branded as “Trump whisperers”. Both men are said to talk to Trump frequently on the phone, and Abe has already met with Trump numerous times, cozying up to Trump and giving him the spotlight he years. Both of them came to ask for the blessing of the “Don” like Luca Brasi in the Godfather, asking for a change of heart on multilateral issues, showing the ways in which Trump has rewritten the rules of international negotiation. In return, though they have failed to change his mind, he has given Macron the highest honor of a “State Visit”, and has exempted Abe from the Steel and Aluminum Tariff.
More than a year after Trump’s presidency, they have realized how to tactfully deal with policy disagreements with this eccentric American leader.
On Iran, Merkel told reporters that she told Trump that the current deal "is anything but perfect," and concluded "We had an exchange of views on the current state of affairs of the negotiations, and the respective assessments on where we stand on this. And the decision lies with the president." Though Macron went on to reject some of Trump’s vision in his address to congress, at the “Don’s court”, he still needs to pay his respect, which he did. He advocated for the active involvement of the U.S. on the world stage, asking the U.S. to “preserve and reinvent” multilateralism for a new generation. From this note, we can probably predict though there are constant calls for #resistance against Trump’s policies, from these two visits we can tell that the US enjoyed more leverage and European leaders have limited options but to revert to his ways.
Moving to Asia, Trump has also upended the traditional step-by-step process of major international negotiations. He stunned his aides by agreeing to direct talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, aka Rocket Man with a button smaller than his, placing himself at the center of attention (on twitter), right in between the leaders of North and South Korea. Trump aimed high, which is ending the state of war in the Korean Peninsula, protect his downside with threats (on twitter), and kept pushing. While foreign policy “experts” were shocked at Trump’s acceptance to the meeting and uniformly doubted Trump’s character fitness to negotiate with an equally wild Kim, Trump nonetheless took credit for his own bold and innovative diplomacy that may bring major changes to the Peninsula. "It's certainly something that I hope I can do for the world," Trump said, taking credit (again) for helping South Korea open the door for talks, through his support for the Winter Olympics held there in February. With Trump's blessing, South Korea invited North Korea to send athletes and dignitaries, transforming the games into a spectacle of sports diplomacy after nearly 70 years of conflict. While praising himself, he also trolled the experts who told him that issue of North Korea is a complicated conundrum.
With the meeting between the Korean leaders in the past, Trump has established his foreign policy approach as one that rests largely on the pride he takes in busting the old conventions of diplomatic negotiations and remaking them in his image. Trump quickly called President Moon after the meeting, to set the tone that he is the ultimate stakeholder in the negotiation, setting the stage and hyping the subsequent meeting between him and Kim much in the vein of a Don King boxing match promotion as if President Moon is simply the undercard boxer. Trump's foreign policy maneuvers, particularly on North Korea, carry great risks, that is why it will draw huge (yuuuuge) ratings. Pyongyang has proven an unreliable negotiator in the past, but world powers have been negotiating with them for decades, much like with Iran. A failure of talks now could inflame tensions back to where they were only months ago, or for the past six decades. There can also be concerns that a military confrontation will become more likely, again like the past six decades. Therefore, much like the Iran deal, Trump will be under pressure to come up with a new approach to keep Pyongyang and Tehran's nuclear ambitions in check, which every President since Harry Truman has failed, we just have not realized they have failed and accepted them as the “norm” and mock any effort of changing the norm as “unconventional” at best.
Recently, Sarah Sanders has referred to China’s effort of “requesting” multinational companies not to refer to Taiwan as a sovereign entity independent from China, to which “Oreweillian”, causing epiphany in Taiwan and outrage in China, this is a good lead in to my quick thoughts on Trump’s trade war with China, which many “experts” and members of his own party fret might lead to severe consequences. Trump is adhering to his “elements of the deal” fundamentals. As there are already numerous articles discussing this topic, I will just elaborate on a few points. Following his contextual framework, the US has prime “location” in global trade, thus having the most leverage in any trade negotiation, Therefore, all he has to do is again, simply aim high and keep pushing for China to open its market and to rescind its trade barriers. There has been fear that China might ban Apple in retaliation for the US banning the sale of ZTE and potentially Huawei, but when we think about where Apple products are made, such action would be considered suicidal. China has very limited options to retaliate against the US, since its economic success is built upon unfair trade practices taking advantage of the global economic supply chain by using its huge domestic market as negotiation leverage, when global powers no longer tolerate such act, it actually does not have many bargaining tools for its disposal.
Looking back to Taiwan like I always do, with Trump being an iconoclast upending conventional wisdom and protocol in foreign policy, we have a unique chance to increase our global footprint. One common thread we can discern from his numerous actions is that he foregoes international institutions, multilateral meetings and chooses to instead undertake bilateral engagements where his negotiation leverage can be maximized to ultimately flex his muscle unilaterally. Since Woodrow Wilson and failed establishment of the League of Nations, US policy over the past century has been focused on building international organizations one after the other with itself acting as the selfless and just deity while taking up most of the costs and overheads. However, in Trump’s mind, these institutions have become unchecked and wasteful bureaucracies that sabotage US’ own interests. Under his presidency, his delegates to the meetings have become debt collectors and critics of these institutions while he sought to unilaterally pursue his own “deal making” and “bromance” (Netanyahu, Abe, Macron, bin Salman). As an orphan that is shut out from all these organizations, we ought to seek out opportunities to engage in dialogues with the US by any means necessary.
Yet at the same time, I am also fearful that our current administration and our lobbying group in the US lack the proper understanding of how the current administration’s “deal making” is done. We are still fixated in self-pity and sulking in defeatism rather than exploring potential opportunities for a breakthrough. At the same time, our foreign policy minds in Taiwan and the US also failed to realize this new norm of global politics in which the US wield its might unilaterally and instead are still pouting from the shocking defeat of their preferred candidate. Yes, Trump might be characteristically unfit to be President, his actions might be deeply controversial, very unsettling, cringe worthy and appalling, but let us not be obsessed with his flaws but instead look for previously unavailable avenues where we may potentially capitalize on. North Korea was shrewd in working itself to the negotiation table, while we are not a rogue nation like them, we ought to think about prospective breakthroughs as well. Trump thinks “outside the box” of traditional politics, so let us also leave the box.
photo credit：Evan El-Amin＠shutterstock