Even critics of Donald Trump must acknowledge his recent wave of diplomatic successes. China has expanded market access to American exporters. The leaders of North and South Korea have held a summit, declared an end to their state of war, and the North has announced it would cease testing nuclear weapons. Mexico has intervened and stopped the “migrant caravan” from Central America.
Like “Cowboy” Bush, but even more so, Trump’s “arrogant and unrestrained” promotion of America and its interests has met with widespread criticism from the diplomatic establishment. Yet, somehow, Trump has obtained substantial results. How is this possible?
Previous American Diplomacy: Not a Success Story
For starters, the bar was exceedingly low. What passed for diplomatic “successes” among his predecessors turned out mostly to be diaphanous illusions.
In 1994, Bill Clinton famously declared that he had reached a “good deal for the United States” and that the North Koreans would stop their nuclear program in exchange for food and energy resources. At the time, the New York Times lauded the framework as “resounding triumph.” This blackmail payoff scheme turned out predictably: the North Koreans promptly cheated and used their newfound resources to fund their secret nuclear weapons program.
Hillary Clinton’s “reset” with Russia went nowhere, with U.S. support for Moscow’s rivals in Georgia and Ukraine creating tension that continues into the present, in spite of our common interest in combating Islamic extremism.
George W. Bush responded to the forced landing of an EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft by China with a few weeks of behind-the-scenes begging that ended with the Chinese releasing the crew, but keeping the top-secret aircraft for several months, along with U.S. compensation and apologies for violating Chinese airspace. In spite of this provocation, America continued to give the Chinese most favored nation trading status, and America lost 5 million manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2016.
Obama was praised both for the Iran Deal and his Cairo Speech, where he blamed the West for most of the problems in the Islamic world, including its disorder and seemingly endless supply of terrorists. He snubbed allies in the United Kingdom, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, and elsewhere, and opened up trade and tourism to Communist Cuba, while obtaining nothing in return. Above all, Obama endeavored to be liked by audiences overseas, and he mostly did so by insulting America’s past and people.
Hillary Clinton, Obama, Madeline Albright, Jimmy Carter, and John Kerry all touted their preference for “diplomacy,” as opposed to what they dismissed as the Republicans’ unsophisticated and atavistic preference for force and threats of force. Along these lines, Clinton made the following critique of Trump during the campaign, which mocked the skills he acquired in the private sector, as well as his typically Republican willingness to threaten and use force:
So the stakes in global statecraft are infinitely higher and more complex than in the world of luxury hotels. We all know the tools Donald Trump brings to the table—bragging, mocking, composing nasty tweets—I’m willing to bet he’s writing a few right now. But those tools won’t do the trick. Rather than solving global crises, he would create new ones. He has no sense of what it takes to deal with multiple countries with competing interests and reaching a solution that everyone can get behind. In fact, he is downright contemptuous of that work. And that means he’s much more likely to end up leading us into conflict.
In short, some Republicans, and almost all Democrats, have long had a near-religious faith in negotiations, talks, gestures of humility, the United Nations, and multilateralism. They eschew threats, the use of force, confidence, and American unilateralism. Yet the foreign policy establishment’s tactics and their communications strategies have been both ineffective and old-fashioned, failing to communicate foreign policy goals and America’s interests in a clear and direct manner. They behaved as if we were in the age of the Congress of Vienna, while we now have a large, young, democratic, and opinionated world.
Trump Uses Multiple Tools in Diplomacy, Including Twitter, Trade, and Tough Talk
In spite of all the talk about social media, Obama and W. both had fairly traditional communication strategies that made use of high-level talks, television, and scripted presentations. Trump’s penchant for Twitter, which appears at first random and provocative, has in fact proven crucial in communicating U.S. intentions and expectations to foreign competitors, as well as their people.
When Kim Jong-un was testing missiles and threatening attacks on Guam, Trump mocked him as “Rocket Man” and warned North Korea of “Fire and Fury.” If ambiguity has been the cause of prior conflicts, it’s clearly not Trump’s problem. And, like the “madman” strategy used by both Nixon and Reagan in dealing with the Soviet Union, these Twitter messages have the benefit of being knowingly authored by the man in charge.
The biggest difference between Trump and the foreign policy establishment is that he does not make a false distinction of trade policy, threats, war, and diplomacy. They all exist on a continuum, the goal being to communicate to adversaries, mold their behavior, and enforce their commitments in the service of American interests. While Trump has defined those interests narrowly—America First—and has disappointed his supporters by deviating from that template with certain aspects of his Syria and Russia policies, overall the employment of the various tools of statecraft in a single direction is apparent.
Under Clinton, Bush, and Obama, one of the most important items of leverage in the United States, trade policy, has fallen into desuetude. Trump has put an end to that. While Wall Street and many Republicans warned of a disastrous trade war, it is apparent that free trade orthodoxy has limited the use of this nonviolent and crucial tool, which leverages America’s status as one of the world’s largest markets. We read this month in the Los Angeles Times, “Amid Trump’s threats, Xi pledges to slash tariffs, open China’s markets.” If this is what a trade war looks like, it appears we are winning.
It is clear that, for most of the experts, diplomacy means glorified groveling. In the pre-9/11 dealings with the Taliban and Sudanese governments harboring al Qaeda, Madeline Albright described the following toothless responses, “After the Africa embassy bombings, we repeatedly warned the Taliban that they would be held accountable if bin Laden were responsible for any further terrorist strikes against U.S. targets. We said after the Cole bombing that we would not rule out any option if and when the attack was traced back to bin Laden.” After this, we got 9/11.
The Businessman President
I suspect much of the ineffectiveness of traditional diplomacy comes from the cultural biases and limited experiences of the experts themselves, who come from academic, law, and government service backgrounds. While such service teaches one to value protocol, process, titles, credentials, and appearances, the business world teaches competition, the value of the bottom line, and frequently consists of high stakes negotiations. For a businessman engaged in negotiations, the threat of a lawsuit, withholding performance, adjusting prices, and other hardball tactics are familiar tools.
Businessmen, particularly large-scale New York City real estate developers, often must address ambiguous relationships with a variety of stakeholders. They deal with competitors, vendors, regulators, unions, contractors, subcontractors, lawyers, and community activists. A great many decisions, conflicts, and threats are made along the way.
One of the most important aspects of negotiating is anchoring. Thus, it is not a bug, but a feature of Trumpian negotiation that he moves back from an initial and extreme statement of his position—for example, the United States will build a wall and Mexico will pay for it. Successful negotiating does not typically result from the legacy diplomatic approach: endless begging, pleading, and talking.
Foreign policy run by the president also requires wrangling in domestic constituencies and legacy government officials seeking to deploy American power in ways contrary to America’s interest. Here, too, an important business skill has inured to Trump’s advantage: saying no.
Trump famously has been successful since the 1980s, and that level of capital leads to a great many people selling him on investments, deals, and other ventures. He will have to continue to push back against the legacy foreign policy establishment to maintain his legacy. Let’s hope he remembers what he wrote about in The Art of the Deal, after rejecting a proposed investment, “That experience taught me a few things. One is to listen to your gut, no matter how good something sounds on paper. The second is that you’re generally better off sticking with what you know. And the third is that sometimes your best investments are the ones you don’t make.”
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