With Trump, a deal isn’t a deal

Donald Trump has only one strategy. He used it against Canada and Mexico in the NAFTA talks. He is using it now against Iran.

It is an unusual bargaining strategy. Most negotiators work toward an end point. With Trump, however, there is no end. His counterparties may think they have reached an arrangement with him. But they never do. He always comes back with more demands. The U.S. president is deliberately unreliable.

His main critique of the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by former U.S. president Barack Obama and other world leaders is that he, Trump, could have done better.

And he’s willing to risk war in order to prove his point.

Hence, his casual willingness to unilaterally scrap the Obama deal, a nuclear treaty that was painfully arrived at and that bears the imprimatur of the United Nations.

Hence, his unilateral imposition of economic sanctions — not only against Iran, but against anyone who dares to do business with that country.

He calls it his maximum pressure campaign. He should call it his capitulate-or-else campaign. He says he is willing to talk to the leaders of Iran. But he will be satisfied only if they surrender completely.

As Trump’s behaviour in the North American Free Trade Agreement talks showed, even that may not be enough.

Those three-way talks between Canada, Mexico and the U.S. provide a useful illustration of Trump’s bargaining style.

First, he announced he was willing to blow up the existing NAFTA unless he received significant concessions.

Yet even when he got those concessions, he kept the pressure on, continuing to impose punitive tariffs on Canadian and Mexican steel and aluminum.

He finally did lift those tariffs. But he warned that he might reimpose them at any time if he felt Canada or Mexico were misbehaving.

As if to make that point, he threatened to levy tariffs on all imports from Mexico unless that country acted to prevent Central American migrants from reaching the U.S. southern border.

So, yes, Canada, Mexico and the U.S. have all signed a free trade deal. But it is not much of a deal. It is one that Trump can unilaterally override at any time.

Another element of Trump’s negotiating style is the calculated insult. During the NAFTA talks, he famously badmouthed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as “very dishonest and weak” for daring to question his steel and aluminum tariffs.

The insult appeared to put Trudeau off balance, which, presumably, was the president’s aim. Since then, the prime minister has been careful not to say anything that might be construed as criticism of Trump.

In the Iran crisis, both sides have used the calculated insult. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called Trump’s White House “mentally retarded.”

Trump responded relatively politely to that, noting that Iranian leaders “do not understand reality” and threatening “obliteration” if they dared to attack U.S. forces.

These are reminiscent of the war of words between Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. In that exchange, Trump dismissed Kim as “little rocket man,” threatening him with “fire and fury.” Kim, meanwhile, labelled his U.S. counterpart a “dotard.”

Now the two have formed a mutual admiration society. If the world is lucky, perhaps Trump and Rouhani will do the same.

Don’t count on such a happy outcome, however. North Korea is in a good position, even against a serial bad-faith bargainer like Trump, precisely because it already has nuclear weapons. Iran does not enjoy this advantage.

Thomas Walkom is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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