Despite His Deal-Making Reputation, Trump Is Not Transactional at All

World Politics Review, 25.06.2018
Richard Gowan, académico (European Council on Foreign Relations) y profesor (U. de Columbia)

Oxfam activists wearing masks of the leaders of the Group of Seven participate in a demonstration in Giardini Naxos, Italy, May 26, 2017 (AP/Paolo Santalucia).

When Donald Trump won the U.S. presidency, nervous commentators warned that he would pursue transactional relations with foreign powers, eschewing America’s traditional values and alliances. To the extent that he has disdained many of the principles that guided U.S. engagement with the world after 1945, they were correct.

But the Trump administration has also proved strikingly averse to genuinely transactional diplomacy, if you define that term as making and delivering concrete bargains that all sides can afford.

Foreign diplomats, not least among U.S. allies, have made strenuous efforts to satisfy the president’s widely publicized love of deal-making. Rather than simply reject Trump’s criticisms of the international system, other powers have repeatedly endeavored to identify concessions to satisfy him. Yet while U.S. officials have been willing to discuss these offers, the administration has often ended up walking away in a huff.

The recent U.S. withdrawals from the Iranian nuclear deal and the United Nations Human Rights Council were both examples of this pattern. In both cases, foreign diplomats proposed substantive compromises to keep Washington involved in multilateral diplomacy. But the U.S. finally refused to make a deal on either.

Such rebuffs are raising doubts about whether other states will be willing to offer Washington similar concessions in the future. Professional diplomats are quite used to transactional bargaining, especially with the U.S., and often cite hard-edged negotiations as their favorite part of the job. But they do not like being taken for fools.

In the Iranian case, Britain, France and Germany responded to Trump’s threats to exit the nuclear bargain with strong public defenses of the agreement. But they also formulated initiatives to curb Tehran’s missile activities and regional interventions. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian visited Iran in March to seek out space for compromise, while the U.K. pushedfor the Security Council to condemn Iranian interference in Yemen. As Ellie Geranmayeh noted at the time, European officials hoped that Trump’s condemnations of the deal were simply “maximalist negotiating tactics,” and that “if Europe showed some flexibility, the president would climb down from these demands.” They were mistaken.

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Merkel visited Trump in May to try to convince him to remain in the Iran agreement, and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo kept talking with his European counterparts up to the 11th hour. But the president ultimately insisted on a clean break from the deal. In doing so, he embarrassed those allies who had been willing to offer concessions to keep him in, despite straining their ties to Iran in doing so.

Talks on U.S. participation in the Human Rights Council, which culminated in Pompeo and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley announcing Washington’s withdrawal last week, had a lower profile but followed a similar path. In June 2017, Haley visited Geneva to warn the council that the U.S. could withdraw, citing the body’s bias against Israel and its inclusion of autocratic members. American allies, led by Britain and the Netherlands, quickly put together a process to identify pragmatic reforms that would meet some of Haley’s complaints.

By the start of this year, participants in this process felt that they were making real progress, while working-level U.S. officials seemed keen to make it a success. Human rights experts worried that some European diplomats were willing to make sweeping concessions to keep America on board, such as reducing the council’s overall scrutiny of major crises in general as a way to limit its discussions of Israel in particular.

But the U.S. proved unwilling to compromise on second-best reforms, and proposed a resolution in the U.N. General Assembly demanding large-scale changes to the council’s operations this spring. Even Washington’s most loyal allies thought this was unworkable, and most read it as a prelude to U.S. withdrawal.

Pompeo and Haley’s statement last week was thus not a great shock. Haley nonetheless pushed the boundaries of diplomatic decorum by observing that “likeminded countries were unwilling to seriously challenge the status quo” and “would not take a stand unless it was behind closed doors.”

Haley surely had a point: U.N. diplomacy is often a hypocritical business. But at the same time, transactional diplomacy is inherently a private affair. If the administration really wanted to get deals on issues like Human Rights Council reform, it could only have expected to do so behind closed doors. The U.S. withdrawal from the council was just one more example of its refusal to engage in normal diplomatic deal-making.

It is easy to pile up further examples of this tendency. After meeting with the Group of Seven in Canada, Trump agreed to a joint declaration on trade, only to announce he was “unsigning” the document while flying to Singapore on Air Force One. Once in Asia, he struck a “deal” with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that was disturbingly insubstantial. The president is warming up for a NATO summit this July by criticizing other members of the alliance for low defense spending, despite the fact that many of them have been trying to boost expenditures to avoid his wrath. There are reports he will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, perhaps immediately after the NATO gathering, to maximize their discomfort.

The Trump administration seems intent on developing a political narrative according to which it faces constant betrayal by other powers, above all its supposed allies. The irony, though, is that America’s friends have been exceedingly open to making compromises to keep Trump happy. A truly transactional leader would have taken these opportunities to reshape the international system and flagged each win as proof of American power.

But it has become clear that Trump does not really make deals, so much as pick fights, declare victory and go home.

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