The Worst Deals Ever

What Trump Misses About the Art of Foreign Policy Negotiation

Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump in Iowa, September 2016.  Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS

The secret to U.S. President Donald Trump’s successful foreign policy, he often claims, is his knack for cutting a great deal. A real estate mogul and author of several books about the art of negotiations, Trump made dealmaking a central theme of his 2016 campaign. He blasted international agreements negotiated by his predecessors as the “worst deals ever” and claimed that he could do a far better job on behalf of the American people. After decades of “losing” on trade and being cheated by free-riding allies, the United States would finally have a leader willing to “put America first.” Trump would not hesitate to make more ambitious demands and confront adversaries and allies alike. And instead of paying the bills for some notional liberal international order, he would leverage the United States’ immense financial and military power in the name of driving harder bargains that would serve the national interest. 

Many Trump supporters continue to back this new approach. They applaud Trump’s confrontational style and seem to believe his repeated assertion that “other countries that took advantage of us are no longer taking advantage of us.” 

What these supporters are missing, however, is that when it comes to actual accomplishments, Trump has almost nothing to show for his efforts. So far, none of his attempts at renegotiating old deals or putting together new ones have succeeded, and most have backfired badly. In fact, Trump is an ineffective negotiator not only because he is poorly versed in basic facts, inconsistent in his bottom lines, and susceptible to flattery but also because his entire approach is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of dealmaking. He wrongly views international relations as a zero-sum game and confuses punishing others with enhancing his own country’s long-term prosperity, security, and well-being.

Some defenders concede that Trump’s approach has costs but claim that the eventual payoff will outweigh them. In a recent Foreign Affairs article (“Three Cheers for Trump’s Foreign Policy,” September/October 2018), for

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