Trump’s transactional problem

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 A foreign policy approach – to competitors, potential partners and friends alike – based on open-ended negotiations and no preconditions seems like the triumph of flexibility. No legacy of the past, a clean slate where present and future interests can be discussed and potentially better reconciled: the ideal context for a great negotiator's creativity. This is what Donald Trump has presented and to some extent practiced (so far, mostly through tweets) as his hallmark since he was elected.

There is a downside to such an approach that is already emerging, a question that needs to be addressed, and a sort of “Obama curse” that will hang over the Trump presidency.

One fundamental problem inherent in this particular negotiating strategy is that, quite obviously, everything must be negotiable for it to work properly. However, even before the new President was sworn in, the Chinese government had clarified that something is indeed non-negotiable. From the perspective of the second largest economy in the world and a major security player, there is no budging on the "One China” policy that has formed a cornerstone of relations between Washington and Beijing since 1979, whereby Taiwan is “a part of China”. 

The Chinese government’s position may well be just an opening statement in a long-drawn diplomatic confrontation, and there may be ways around it. After all, an observer from Mars would look at the fiction that the People’s Republic still includes Taiwan – an independent country with a solid economy and extensive relations around the world – as a historical absurdity.

Yet, the pretty firm stance taken by the Chinese certainly poses a central question that the Trump administration must be ready to answer: will it accept that its counterparts define the playing field just as China is trying to do on Taiwan (in which case it will not be a level playing field)? Or will the US government define its own non-negotiables, thus setting the stage for a much more traditional diplomatic exchange?

The case of Beijing’s reluctance to engage in purely “transactional” exchange (Trump has vaguely envisaged a scenario in which China refrains from “currency manipulation” in exchange for a US reiteration of the One China policy) suggests a more general point.

A transactional foreign policy is systematically advantageous to American interests only under one set of circumstances: if both negotiators  assume that the US has superior hard and soft power, as well as more willpower and stamina. If these conditions are not met (and in several instances they will not, as Washington is often an outside or distant player in areas that are of vital importance to countries like China or Russia – think of the South China Sea or Central Asia), then there is a serious problem. A set of open-ended "clean slate" negotiations actually gives away one important (possibly irreplaceable) American card from the start, i.e. the unique position the US occupies in global relations as the hub of an overlapping network of alliances, bilateral arrangements (such as the detailed protocols that formally govern bilateral relations with China) and multilateral commitments. In other words, the weight of history helps make the US the stronger player, thanks to a variety of tangible and intangible resources. Negotiating without those resources in the background – a sort of firepower stored over the horizon that can be called upon in case of need – is a big gamble.

Now, Trump seems to believe that he can also bring to the table an additional asset: his own personal talent and experience as a dealmaker. This is another gamble, as personalizing international relations carries risks – certainly reducing predictability – and may almost neutralize the organizational superiority that the US national security apparatus still enjoys over its counterparts. If deals are made on a highly personal basis, they are particularly vulnerable to any change of leadership, and potentially even to the vagaries of individual moods at summit meetings or in the course of telephone conversations. This is not exactly a recipe for long-term success, given that success in politics, and especially in security issues, cannot contemplate repeated “failure” in the same way that private business can (and should).

There is probably an unspoken assumption at the core of the next President’s preference for ad hoc negotiations, which will soon be tested. His approach actually presupposes that the United States is everything but a declining power: all it takes to make it “great again” is a bit of risk-prone negotiating tactic. Somewhat paradoxically, Trump will quickly end up where Obama in a sense wanted to leave him: pondering carefully whether the US can really afford a unilateral foreign policy (at times semi-isolationist, at times very assertive, judging from the national security team that is being assembled) in confronting rising or aggressive powers. Obama thought this was not possible or at least not wise; Trump will have to make up his mind.

For the incoming President – as has often been the case in history – there is no escaping his predecessor’s legacy, almost like a curse.