It’s safe to say Donald Trump considers himself one of the world’s best negotiators.
Before becoming US president, he spent decades as a real estate developer making complex business deals, leading to great successes in some cases, and bankruptcies in others. He dealt with tough characters, including contractors who would “take the shirt right off your back” unless you were “very rough and very tough,” as he described in his 1987 book The Art of the Deal.
Over his business career, Trump developed a style of negotiation that he’s since applied to the presidency. That style has played a role in where we are this week: on the verge of the first-ever meeting between the sitting leaders of the US and North Korea. Trump is scheduled to meet with Kim Jong Un tomorrow (June 12) in Singapore.
Go with your gut
As seen in his business dealings, Trump likes to go with his instincts. He wrote in The Art of the Deal, “I think deal-making is an ability you’re born with… It’s not about being brilliant. It does take a certain intelligence, but mostly it’s about instincts.”
When South Korean officials relayed an invitation from Kim to Trump to meet in person, Trump accepted the invitation straightaway, sending his aides scrambling. Other politicians would have avoided meeting Kim directly, or at least waited until a series of working-level meetings had taken place to hash out where the two sides really stand. They’d be aware that photos of a handshake with the brutal dictator could give fodder to North Korean propagandists eager to boost the ruling regime’s legitimacy. Kim will no doubt tell his people he used his nuclear might to force the US—which has never extended diplomatic recognition to North Korea—to the table.
That Trump was not more cautious—and didn’t consult extensively with Korea experts—isn’t surprising. As a businessman, he often dismissed steps others would view as prudent, such as hiring consultants. He wrote in The Art of the Deal:
“I like consultants even less than I like committees. When it comes to making a smart decision, the most distinguished planning committee working with the highest-priced consultants doesn’t hold a candle to a group of guys with a reasonable amount of common sense and their own money on the line.”
On Saturday (June 9), Trump said his instincts would quickly tell him whether Kim was serious about denuclearization:
“I think within the first minute, I’ll know… Just my touch, my feel, that’s what I do… I think very quickly I’ll know whether or not something good is going to happen.”
Trump clearly takes pride in his instincts, and doesn’t see much need for preparation. He said last week of the summit, “I don’t think I have to prepare very much. It’s about attitude, it’s about willingness to get things done.” Nor did he see consulting Korea experts as a necessity—indeed, the US still has no ambassador to South Korea, one of many diplomatic posts (paywall) left unfilled. In a telling comment to Fox News last November, he said of the empty diplomatic positions, “Let me tell you, the one that matters is me. I’m the only one that matters.”
A matter of leverage
Trump, like many negotiators, is a strong believer in the power of leverage. As he wrote in The Art of the Deal:
“The best thing you can do is deal from strength, and leverage is the biggest strength you can have. Leverage is having something the other guy wants. Or better yet, needs.”
For Trump, sanctions provided the US with leverage over North Korea. Some argue that (paywall) Trump’s insistence on ratcheting up economic pressure through heavier sanctions forced Kim to the table—though Kim counters that it was his completion of North Korea’s nuclear program that made the time right for a meeting.
Sanctions, nonetheless, still rely on the cooperation of regional players. Following Kim’s diplomatic blitz, there are signs that Trump’s campaign of “maximum pressure” is weakening. China, South Korea, and Russia are already preparing for better ties with North Korea, even though they went along with the sanctions at first.
In May, secretary of state Mike Pompeo suggested US firms might be allowed to invest in North Korea if Kim agrees to denuclearize, while Trump later said North Korea would become “very rich” off the back of US investments. But North Korea doesn’t particularly need or want US trade and investment. China and others are ready to deliver that in spades. What North Korea wants is for the US to get out of its way so it can seek money elsewhere.
The US is “the primary obstacle in places like the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the IMF, where the North Koreans want money,” Georgetown University professor Victor Cha said on NBC’s Meet the Press in May. The widely respected Cha was expected to be the next US ambassador to South Korea, until his views against a limited “bloody nose” strike on North Korea allegedly put him out of the running.
What is Trump thinking?
The possibility of such a strike could come to the fore again if Trump walks away from the summit tomorrow, as he’s threatened to do. Last month he abruptly canceled the summit in response to hostile statements by North Korea, stunning allies like South Korean president Moon Jae-in, only to say a week later that the meeting was back on track.
That cancelation too, might have been a negotiating tactic, a way to show Kim he’s serious about walking away. It did get North Korea to adopt a more positive tone.
Those who fear Trump will abruptly walk away from the summit (and more generally from diplomacy with North Korea) can take some comfort from his statement earlier this month, when he said of the upcoming negotiations, “I never said it goes in one meeting. I think it’s going to be a process, but the relationships are building and that’s very positive.”
That sounded reassuring. But with Trump, one never knows, and that’s partly by design. In The Art of the Deal, he described intentionally horrifying New York city planning officials by showing mockups of an ugly building he was supposedly planning to erect if they didn’t give him permission for the skyscraper he wanted to create.
“Naturally, they were horrified. I’m not sure they believed we’d ever build it, or even that it was buildable, but there was no way they could be sure.”
Similarly, on foreign policy, he’s said, “I don’t want people to know my thinking.”
That’s one thing, at least, he shouldn’t be too worried about.