Editor’s Note: Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him on Twitter @aarondmiller2. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his alone.
President Trump offered to mediate the conflict between Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE
Aaron David Miller: He doesn't even have the negotiating skills needed to fix international issues concerning the US
In an appearance with the Emir of Kuwait on Thursday, President Donald Trump, who styles himself a master negotiator, threw himself into the middle of the fight between Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE by offering to mediate the dispute at the White House, if necessary. It was, to be sure, the triumph of ego over sound or wise policy.
Eight months into his presidency, Mr. Trump’s self-touted negotiating skills are more urban legends than anything else.
Indeed, what he’s achieved at home hasn’t been delivered through the art of the deal so much as through the art of undoing, through executive action, the work of his predecessor. Maybe Wednesday’s deal with the Democrats on the debt ceiling is a trend line in Mr. Trump’s negotiating style, rather than a passing headline.
But, so far, his achievements abroad don’t say much for his skills as a negotiator. What works in real estate clearly doesn’t in the world of statecraft and international diplomacy. Here in his own words are several Trump tactics that have not only failed, but made things worse.
Aim high – achieve nothing?
“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,” Trump wrote in the “Art of the Deal.”
His notion that you identify a goal that can’t possibly be achieved and then settle for less, presumably what you wanted all along, may work in buying a car or negotiating for a rug in a Middle East market. It doesn’t translate to diplomacy, and certainly not for a President who wants to be taken seriously.
Staking out an objective that’s not simply attainable makes a leader look weak, ill-informed and amateurish and only convinces your adversaries or allies across the table that you don’t know what you’re doing.
Consider Mr. Trump’s fantastical campaign promise to build a wall that Mexico will pay for and his leaked conversation with Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto in which Mr. Trump is almost pleading with him to just not publicly contradict him on the issue.
Even Mr. Trump’s delusionary promise to deliver the “ultimate deal” – a conflict-ending accord between Israelis and Palestinians – was an amateur move. Many people, especially Israelis and Palestinians, and Trump’s negotiator son-in-law should know that the deal – or anything close – cannot possibly be achieved. Former Secretary of State James Baker wisely advised me to keep public expectations low. Mr. Trump has done the opposite and engaged in grandiosity that damages his and America’s credibility.
Leverage: Where’s Trump’s?
In “The Art of the Deal,” Trump opined about leverage: “Don’t make deals without it.”
And he’s right. It’s critical in any successful negotiation. The problem is Mr. Trump seems to have ignored his own advice.
Consider his approach to North Korea. He blusters and threatens in the face of Kim Jong Un’s missile and nuclear tests. It has become an all too familiar cycle that badly damages US authority, because Mr. Trump lacks the leverage to compel Kim to change course.
There’s no realistic military option. Sanctions won’t work unless China agrees to clamp down hard on North Korea. Whatever leverage Mr. Trump has isn’t greater than China’s fear of destabilizing North Korea’s regime or allowing the US or South Korea to gain more influence on the Korean Peninsula in the wake of such a development.
The China card played poorly
“I’ve read hundreds of books about China over the decades. I know the Chinese. I’ve made a lot of money with the Chinese. I understand the Chinese mind,” Trump wrote in the “Art of the Deal.”
Based on the first eight months of his presidency, it seems that Mr. Trump knows very little about China. And while the Chinese have moved a bit in Trump’s direction on North Korea, his early efforts to leverage Beijing only underscores Mr. Trump’s lack of expertise in reading the “Chinese mind.”
Before his inauguration, he first reached out to Taiwan – breaking protocol and sparking outrage from China. He threatened a trade war; pulled out of the TPP trade deal, allowing China to enhance its economic influence in the region; threatened to call Beijing out for currency manipulation after they had ceased the practice; and threatened to cut off trade with any country that traded with North Korea.
Substitute China with any number of countries in Mr. Trump’s quote and you begin to see the problem with his negotiating style. To be a negotiator you at least need to know what you don’t know and be in a hurry to find out.
You need to read the real estate right; have some sense of the history and the political culture that drives a nation’s vital interests. And that requires preparation and a degree of curiosity.
The leaked transcripts of Mr. Trump’s conversation with the Mexican president, and Mr. Trump’s leaked conversation with the Prime Minister of Australia, not only revealed a President who had no sense of who he was talking to, but an absence of basic knowledge about the issues he was discussing.
Don’t get mad; Get even
“I love getting even. I get screwed all the time. I go after people, and you know what? People do not play around with me as much as they do with others. They know that if they do, they are in for a big fight. Always get even,” Trump wrote in “Think Big.”
It’s a cruel and unforgiving world out there to be sure. But Trump’s view of the world as a place where everyone is trying to screw you and take advantage of America leads to a skewed, ineffective and possibly dangerous set of responses.
The situation gets very worrisome when a President injects his own personality into the mix and can’t rise above personal slights and frustrations. Mr. Trump’s sheer rudeness to an Australian prime minister – one of America’s closest allies – and his inability to take into account the needs of the president of Mexico – the leader of one America’s two closest neighbors – suggests something is fundamentally off in the way Mr. Trump sees the world.
America needs a president who can rise above pettiness and anger, treat real allies with respect and who understands the needs of adversaries – even while he may not agree or accept them. It was John F. Kennedy’s ability and willingness to seek out and understand what Nikita Khrushchev needed to deescalate the Cuban missile crisis that walked the US and the former Soviet Union back from the brink of nuclear war.
Nobody expects Donald Trump to solve all of America’s problems abroad. But he should not be making them worse. And far from being the skillful and willful negotiator we were promised, Mr. Trump seems to be stumbling about without much of a coherent policy, let alone a single negotiating success.
America is less feared; less admired; and respected than ever before. The lessons from the “Art of the Deal” or “Think Big” just aren’t working. President Trump needs a new playbook. Sadly, America’s prestige, credibility and security depends on it.