Trump Negotiates

Because Donald Trump does not provide reliable readouts of his meetings with Kim Jong Un, we must stitch together bits of information as they trickle out. There’s enough now to provide a picture of Trump’s negotiating style.

Jessica Tuchman Matthews summarizes that style in an excellent overview of the Hanoi meeting between Trump and Kim.

Shortly after the success of The Art of the Deal (1987) made Donald Trump a supposed expert on negotiation, he lobbied the George H.W. Bush administration to put him in charge of arms reduction talks with the Soviet Union. The position went instead to Richard Burt, an experienced diplomat and arms control expert. When the two men met at a New York social event, Trump pulled Burt aside to tell him what he would have done—and what Burt should do—to start off the negotiations. Greet the Soviets warmly, he said. Let the delegation get seated and open their papers. Then stand up, put your knuckles on the table, lean over, say “Fuck you,” and walk out of the room.

…Trump thinks that what works is the unexpected. His goal is to put people off balance, which allows him, he believes, to get his way. This explains his otherwise baffling calls for US policy to be “unpredictable.”

After the breakdown of the Hanoi summit, the United States and North Korea provided conflicting reports on the reasons for the breakdown. It appeared that one side or both asked for too much. The amount of time the two leaders spent together suggested that rejection had been rapid, with no effort at working through alternatives.

We now learn that

…Trump handed North Korean leader Kim Jong Un a piece of paper that included a blunt call for the transfer of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and bomb fuel to the United States, according to the document seen by Reuters.

This is consistent with statements by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about North Korea’s obligations and by John Bolton about the “Libya Model” for North Korean denuclearization.

There has been a gulf between North Korea and the United States on the meaning of the word “denuclearization.” North Korea has long used it to indicate a state in which nuclear weapons and their threat have been removed from all of the Korean Peninsula and its environs. That includes American promises of nuclear defense to Japan and South Korea. The use of the word by the Trump administration means unilateral nuclear disarmament by North Korea.

The Trump administration seems to have made denuclearization a condition for any concessions at all on the American side. The North Koreans know well that their nuclear capability is the basis of any leverage they have.

Libya gave up its nuclear program, which mostly hadn’t ever been uncrated, and centrifuges and other equipment – no bombs – were sent to the United States. That is the model that Bolton has insisted on for North Korea, which has full manufacturing capability for bombs and missiles in several locations. To North Korea, the lesson of Libya is that giving up nuclear leverage means a vulnerability to American attack.

The United States has put this plan forward earlier, and North Korea has rejected it. To put it forth again, with no changes in American concessions, is insulting to North Korea.

In what may have been an attempt to walk back the excessive demand, or perhaps to provide more unpredictability, Trump tweeted

DJT 190330

He apparently did this without the knowledge of any of his team. There was confusion for a while about which sanctions he was referring to, but the best information seems to be that they were sanctions that Bolton had earlier praised and had already been announced. It appears that Bolton’s approving tweet has been deleted. Revoking those sanctions would undercut Trump’s stated position of maximum pressure on North Korea. The sanctions seem to have remained in place.

Trump believes that international negotiations can be won with a show of force and bluster. He is ignorant of the substance that must go into a negotiation with North Korea and unwilling to depend on the experts. He believes that a “deal” can be arrived at like a real estate deal – one of the parties decides to give in and agree to terms.

That isn’t how this sort of negotiation is done, however. A million questions must be answered. In the unlikely event that North Korea were to give up its nuclear weapons program, those questions would include

  • How many bombs and missiles does North Korea have?
  • Where are they located?
  • Who would confirm that information?
  • Where would they go?
  • Who would take them there?
  • How can both sides be sure that is what would happen?

And many sub-questions on timing, modes of transport for both people and materiel. On the American side, there are the questions of how sanctions would be lifted and so on. No country gives up an advantage for nothing.

Trump’s arrogance and ignorance allow him to be manipulated by those he negotiates with and those around him. He proclaimed the first meeting with Kim a success and that there was no longer a nuclear danger from North Korea. Kim probably understood that the photo ops and television ratings were enough for Trump. But now Kim expects reciprocity for his actions, as any negotiator would.

The request for all of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program probably comes from Bolton, who has pushed the Libya scenario. His plan B is probably war. Trump’s desire for a big, instant solution probably made the demand seem plausible to him.

Trump seems not to learn from his mistakes. His idea of negotiation has little to do with how international agreements actually are negotiated.

Look at that top photo. That’s the man whom Trump expects to give up his nuclear arsenal.


Cross-posted to Balloon Juice.