President Donald Trump has styled himself in foreign policy as the Great Disrupter. And for a time, this unpredictable approach served him reasonably well. Leaders from China, North Korea and Iran found themselves off balance, and they sometimes made what looked like concessions.
Trump’s problem is that, after two years, foreign nations seem to have figured him out. Rather than crafting quick deals that Trump could tout as wins, these adversaries have played a waiting game. They appear to sense in Trump an impatience and hunger for the spotlight that undermine his ability to negotiate.
Trump in recent weeks has moved toward confrontations with China, North Korea and Iran. In each case, the White House has maximum goals without a clearly discernible strategy for achieving them. Trump’s statements oscillate between hardline rhetoric and invitations to personal diplomacy. Sometimes he appears to contradict positions that his advisers have taken. Once, this back-and-forth might have produced leverage for Trump; now, it often just yields confusion.
Looking at the various global showdowns, you can see a common theme - of adversaries that appear more willing to take risks in resisting Trump’s demands. Trump’s response is often to double down. This dynamic carries a danger of miscalculation.
In the trade war with China, Trump embraced the perennial U.S. desire for a “level playing field.” But he pursued it with a blunderbuss, through escalating tariffs. Trump seemed convinced that China would eventually make concessions that he could claim as a victory. Such a deal seemed imminent this month, and Trump said Monday that it was 95 percent done when Chinese leaders balked.
U.S. experts offer two theories about why China resisted a settlement. One is that Trump’s negotiators wouldn’t promise to remove promptly all tariffs imposed on $250 billion in Chinese products, and the Chinese didn’t trust an erratic American president to eliminate them eventually. Another theory is that Trump’s bravado had convinced the Chinese that he was actually in a weak position and could be pushed.
Either way, Trump’s negotiating style seemed to be part of the problem. Trump and President Xi Jinping will meet at next month’s G-20 summit perhaps for a reset.
The nuclear negotiations with North Korea have been even more puzzling. Trump went for a showy but vague denuclearization statement in his first summit with Chairman Kim Jong Un in Singapore. His State Department advisers then worked to prepare a roadmap for step-by-step negotiations to achieve that goal; but Trump, impatient with slow progress, pushed for another showy maximal agreement at the Hanoi summit in February.
When that summit collapsed, Trump tried flattering Kim and publicly endorsed the incremental approach. Kim, perhaps sensing uncertainty in Trump’s changing positions, turned up the pressure by resuming missile tests this month. The U.S. matched Pyongyang’s show of strength by seizing a North Korean ship allegedly carrying forbidden cargo.
The bottom line is that with North Korea, as with China, Trump’s disruptive style has had diminishing returns.
Which brings us to the most dangerous of the confrontations, the test of strength with Iran. As Trump tightened the vise of sanctions on the Iranian economy, Tehran seems to have opted for counter-disruption. Israel and other Middle East allies have warned of Iranian preparations for sabotage or military action; the U.S. responded with an aircraft carrier group and B-52 bombers.
When several tankers were damaged off the UAE this week, perhaps by an Iranian mine, The New York Times reported that the administration had updated plans to send as many as 120,000 U.S. troops to the region if necessary. But as always with Trump, there have been mixed signals: The White House is exploring whether to refer the tanker incident to the United Nations, and Trump has said he’s waiting for a call from Iranian leaders.
Trump’s approach as he strides toward the brink in negotiations often seems that of a gambler.
He’s operating on instinct and luck, rather than a careful strategy.
He’s not counting cards, or precisely calculating the odds. He’s winging it, hoping he can bluff the other players. He plays hunches; he blusters his adversaries and then flatters them; he focuses on the optics of looking strong, as opposed to the fundamentals.
The philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously divided people into hedgehogs, who know one big thing, and foxes, who know many little things. Trump may snort like a hedgehog, but his shifting deal-making approach may be closer to a fox - albeit an uncertain one - and the other animals in the forest seem to have figured that out.