By Curt Milam
Sometimes, being unpredictable can create an advantage. But being unreliable is never an advantage. Spoiler alert: Trump is unreliable. But the cost of this unreliability accrues to the American people, not Trump. Let’s consider a few of the costs and some risk mitigation strategies.
Trump has often stated that he considers unpredictability an asset in negotiations. It keeps your opponent off guard and complicates the calculus of negotiation. But Trump’s actions are in fact quite predictable: whatever a previous administration has done, Trump will undo. The underlying policy is irrelevant. It’s not about policy, it’s about spite. It’s a manifestation of Trump’s deep sense of inadequacy. He can’t build, so he must tear down. Trump reserves special animus for Obama’s achievements, but he has shown a willingness to reach back and kick over older tables. For example, his push to renegotiate NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) which took effect in 1994. This is Trump as chaos agent.
A fundamental precondition in negotiations is mutual confidence that, once agreed, each party will enact and enforce the elements of the agreement which fall to them. In international agreements friends and adversaries alike must have confidence that the US will stand by its commitments, otherwise what incentive do they have to enter any agreement with the US?
Consider the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) --the Iran nuclear deal. Pulling out of the JCPOA, as Trump is threatening to do, or unilaterally re-imposing sanctions (same thing) would put the US in violation of the terms of the agreement—not Iran. And it would force our allies who are signatories to the agreement (Germany, France and the UK) to choose between the US and their own interests. It’s quite clear they will choose the latter which means the US will be the pariah. The other signatories, China, Russia and Iran will portray themselves as standing by their word, as opposed to the US. The lesson will be clear. The US can no longer be counted on to keep its word from one administration to the next. And since we change administrations every 4 to 8 years, there’s very little argument for entering an agreement with the US. This has implications far beyond the Iran deal. Any country contemplating a deal with the US will now think twice.
Domestically the same dynamic of unreliability is damaging Trump’s ability to develop and execute any legislative agenda. Signs are beginning to appear that patience among Trump supporters is growing thin. Although congressional republicans have mostly stood with Trump in his efforts at signature legislation; healthcare, tax reform, immigration, Trump has flip-flopped and routinely thrown supporters under the bus when politically expedient or he needed someone to blame for his most recent failure. A prominent Op Ed in the Washington Post on Sunday, 21 October was dedicated entirely to this issue. The authors stated, “President Trump campaigned as one of the world’s greatest dealmakers, but after nine months of struggling to broker agreements, lawmakers in both parties increasingly consider him an untrustworthy, chronically inconsistent and easily distracted negotiator” -- Rucker, Sullivan and Kane (21 Oct 2017) The Great Dealmaker? Lawmakers Find Trump to be an Untrustworthy Negotiator.
The take-away: Trump thinks he’s being unpredictable—a canny and wily negotiator. In fact, Trump is just an untrustworthy and unreliable negotiating partner. In international agreements, this works against US national interests on all levels and places us in strategic jeopardy. Credibility is a fickle thing, it takes years to develop and can be lost in an instant. Trump has already damaged US credibility abroad in several critical areas: the climate, the environment, NATO, and the UN. He’s threatening NAFTA and the JCPOA. Domestically Trump has proven to be an unreliable partner on healthcare reform, immigration, environmental protection, the federal judiciary and government ethics (i.e. his sham blind trust and overt self-dealing). These actions represent real damage that can’t be quickly repaired. And rest assured, abroad our adversaries are moving to fill the leadership void created by an unreliable US.
For international agreements, the best risk mitigation strategy at this point is for congress to draft legislation limiting the president’s ability to renege on in-place international agreements and attach it to legislation the Trump will be compelled to sign—taxes, budget or border security. Domestically the best strategy is to avoid agreements with Trump that can’t be secured by some form of political capital that Trump needs too much to ignore. If there is not a price, Trump and his inner circle of sycophants will back out of any deal just to show they can. Just ask Chuck and Nancy.
Until we can get rid of Trump we need to keep one thing in mind. He’s a sociopathic liar, a moral and ethical vacuum. Mike Bloomberg tried to tell us. Lots of people tried to tell us. Nobody does business with Trump…he’s a con. It’s instructive to observe that not a single US bank will lend to Trump. Not one. Only Deutsche Bank from Germany has loans to Trump. And that is a story for another day.
Curt Milam is a private business and risk consultant based in Budapest, Hungary and Philadelphia, PA. Curt retired from the US Air Force as a colonel in 2013, His military career included 5,000 hours flying the C-130 Hercules as well as staff tours in the Pentagon, NATO HQ and the US embassy in Budapest. Curt writes widely on security, politics and business.
Follow Curt on Twitter: @curtmilam