Donald Trump claims to be a great negotiator. He would renegotiate all the US’s trade agreements and military alliances. Ignore the time and disruption that would incur, although a good negotiator knows to choose his battles.
Ignore that he did such a great job negotiating with the other Republican candidates that Ted Cruz repudiated Trump’s candidacy at the Republican Convention Wednesday night. Read that sentence again: At the Republican Convention. The great negotiator didn’t even know that a public performance must be carefully shaped and vetted.
Trump has shared some of his precepts for negotiation: That a negotiator never explains his tactics, that a negotiator must always be “prepared to walk,” and, implicitly, that a great negotiator always wins.
A good negotiator, I have learned, knows her counterpart and pays attention to implicit signals of direction and indicators of weakness. Her tactics are flexible and tuned to the situation. Let’s look at Trump’s latest interview with the New York Times from that standard.
He insists, again and again, that he can’t say anything about – whatever – in order to keep his tactics secret. If we look at the pattern, however, he is (also) avoiding saying anything substantive. To be credible in a negotiation, one must show that one has the facts in hand. Trump utterly fails at that. One might read that he has none of the facts at hand.
And, oh yes, the interview is a negotiation, with both the reporters and the people who read it.
Trump states positions, like his lack of support for NATO, very clearly. Sometimes, as in his support for the speechwriter and Melania in their plagiarism flap, he sticks to a position unconditionally and counterproductively. Other times he is willing to walk away and even deny what he said earlier, although it may come up again. The position on NATO is a case in point: not new except in specifics, about which more later.
This constant lack of clarity is the mark of a poor negotiator. Consistency is needed to build the trust needed to reach an agreement.
My reading of Trump’s preferred negotiating style, from these and other indicators, is to hold to a position tenaciously, bluster to avoid compromises, lying to confuse the other party, and insist on humiliating the other party. None of this is useful in achieving an agreement in international relations. It is very much like the strategy used by Iranian nuclear negotiators under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Their job was to avoid an agreement, and they were successful.
Trump gets a couple of things wrong in ways that interweave with his negotiating style and would sink him and the United States if he gets to be president. One is his apparent belief that the balance of payments is equivalent to a real-estate balance sheet. It isn’t. It’s much more complicated, as this explanation shows.
He sees military alliances as one-to-one interactions, like real estate transactions or worse. I do something for you, you owe me money. Again, the situation is much more complicated. Most US military alliances come out of the decision after World War II to interrelate the world in such a way as to avoid the wars of the first half of the twentieth century. He also does not understand that just-in-time military intervention isn’t the same as inventory management.
The crude, but accurate way to characterize his view of military alliances is “Nice country you’ve got there. Shame if anything happened to it.”
Trump gives away his whole negotiating strategy. There’s really not much to it. He’s not a good negotiator, but he is a bully. And bullies sometimes get their way.
Jeffrey Goldberg on Trump’s admiration for Putin. If you read only one commentary, make it this one.
Why does Peter Thiel like Donald Trump? In preparation for both speeches tonight.
No photo at the top. I cannot bear to see any more of that face.