Kissinger’s message to Trump

Late Secretary of State Kissinger's style of dealmaking may help President Trump find a way to improve on his repetitive and ineffective foreign policy strategies

Dealmaking and negotiation are two critical aspects of leadership. Especially for political leaders, it is extremely important to have a strategic approach to dealmaking.

In the increasingly complex international environment, a rising number of variables can influence the process. Thus the skill sets of dealmakers have become more important than ever.

For the chief negotiators of the U.S., a country that voluntarily and involuntarily finds itself in the midst of the most complex problems, this skill set can be even more very vital.

In the last decade, we saw the U.S.’ main foreign policy agenda was filled with a complex set of initiatives, conferences and summits, that necessitate a long time of negotiation and dealmaking.

The negotiations for the Iranian Nuclear Deal, Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Initiative and the Paris Climate Summit were all examples of dealmaking processes that were either led by or participated in by the U.S. Effectively, this process has only increased its already heavy weight on diplomacy.The increasing significance of negotiations – in this era of changing international order – has encouraged many to learn this “art” of dealmaking. In a recent book titled, “Kissinger the Negotiator: Lessons from Dealmaking at the Highest Level,” three Harvard professors, James K. Sebenius, Nicholas Burns and Robert Mnookin discussed the negotiation and dealmaking patterns of former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

After quoting Walter Isaacson’s judgment on Kissinger as the “foremost American negotiator” they tried to understand his strategies in this process. The authors believe that Kissinger’s ideas about negotiation and dealmaking can work as important guidance today.

We don’t know how the lessons put forward by the authors can be adopted and relevant today. We also do not know whether a president, who has a book titled “The Art of the Deal” to his name and considers every agreement made before his tenure a failure, will recognize the significance of these lessons.President Trump, from the very beginning of his campaign, criticized the agreements and negotiations conducted under the Obama administration. For him, the Iran Nuclear deal was “the worst deal ever made,” the Paris Climate Accord was a bad deal, and the U.S. needed to withdraw from the TPP. After withdrawing from all three agreements, he mentioned his readiness to renegotiate these deals if the other parties were ready to make more concessions.

In the meantime, he also launched attempts to cut deals with different countries around the world. However, the way he starts these processes is quite predictable. Trump normally cooks up a crisis and generates a widespread anxiety on a topic. For NATO members it was an unwillingness to uphold its Article 5 on collective defense because other members “did not make sufficient contributions to the NATO budget.” For the NAFTA parties it was a warning about a possible U.S. withdrawal; for China, it was a threat of a trade war and finally for North Korea it was the open threat of using force against the regime in Pyongyang.

He uses his Twitter account very efficiently to increase the level of threat, whenever he deems necessary. He makes these statements very public, intentionally. These tweets contribute to the image of unpredictability as well as his commitment to doing what he says.

The expectation of President Trump is usually for a change in the attitude of the other counterparts. This change could take place through backdoor diplomacy where Trump’s counterparts try to reach out to him and see if there is any window of opportunity for reaching a deal. On the other hand, Trump gets to wait until they are ready to make some concessions. Despite the tone of urgency in his tweets and statements, for him, nothing is too urgent and he can wait until the others are ready to make concessions.

In the meantime, he can find another issue. With this move, Trump aims to shift the ground of the negotiations towards his own position. The new normal or acceptable negotiation ground will be far from the previous round of negotiations. Some call it “extreme anchoring” and in some aspects these negotiations are successful.

In his book, President Trump expressed the relevance of this strategy by giving an example from his life. He said: “A new 727 sells for approximately $30 million. A G-4, which is one fourth the size, goes for about $18 million… I offered $5 million, which was obviously ridiculously low. They countered at $10 million, and at that point, I knew I had a great deal, regardless of how the negotiation ended.”

Since the beginning of his presidency, President Trump has not changed his attitude towards negotiations and dealmaking. The fact that he is becoming very flexible and changing his attitude towards the negotiations he launched demonstrated his appetite for it and his willingness to make deals on his own terms.

In the last week, the rapid and constant change in his attitude about the negotiations with the North Korean regime has become another example of this pattern. After calling him a “little rocket man” and threatening to destroy his country, President Trump aimed a diplomatic breakthrough with Kim’s regime by starting direct negotiations.The announcement of a summit with Kim, though considered premature by many diplomats, is being widely regarded as a step in the right direction. The U.S. gained some concessions from the North Korean regime even before the negotiations started.

However, Trump canceled the summit last week and wrote a harsh letter to Kim. But both in the letter and in his statements he made sure that there was an open door for the renegotiation of the terms.

There were reports as of yesterday that the meetings would go ahead as planned and one of the strongest indications was when Trump said, “we will see.” Whenever he mentions this phrase there is usually something cooking.

Nevertheless, his strategy towards Kim and North Korea in the coming days will reveal different dynamics given China, Japan and South Korea will all be important factors in reaching a deal.

Thus the author of the “The Art of the Deal” will need to take all of these external factors that can play an important role in these negotiations into consideration. We will see what kind of deals he can provide for U.S. foreign policy and for the Korean peninsula.

[Daily Sabah, 28 May 2018]

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