Opinion | Morgan Liddick: Trump shows he understands the art of diplomacy
On Your Right
President Trump returned from Hanoi without a comprehensive agreement from Kim Jong Un about North Korea’s complete nuclear disarmament. Derision from the usual suspects about the president’s incompetence began before he left his hotel, let alone the country. Which shows said usual suspects either know nothing about real bargaining and don’t care if others see that, so long as they get to have a hack at the commander in chief; or they do know but ignore the basic tenets of dealmaking, so they may have a hack at the commander in chief. Perhaps a little of both.
It’s also clear that they hate the president more than they love their country — and perhaps, even peace. Their scarcely concealed glee as they announced the failure to reach an accord on eliminating the rogue North Korean regime’s nuclear weapons told the tale loud and clear: The world may burn, so long as Donald Trump is scorched. This is an attitude which, before the Age of Trump, would have been universally recognized as both crazy and dangerous.
The man’s critics might instead consider what actually happened: President Trump, in two quick years, reached a point with the famously paranoid Kim family that only Bill Clinton before him had managed, that 1994 attempt requiring more time and lavish promises of support. Then, instead of taking a deal for a deal’s sake, as his predecessors had done on numerous occasions with this and other thuggish regimes, he walked away. It was a genius move.
The chattering classes don’t think so because they have forgotten a basic truth: International negotiation isn’t like sitting down for a beer with a neighbor one may mildly dislike, in hope that by talking things out the situation over the back fence may become more congenial. International negotiation is warfare by other means: Another is doing something dangerous and threatening, and does not wish to stop; they must be convinced, bribed or forced to do so, because our national interest demands it.
When I lived abroad, I came to appreciate the process of negotiation by shopping at traditional markets. There, bargaining is an art: many desirable items have no marked prices; some are not even on display. The classic free-market question “what must I give you to get what I want?” is typically only the beginning of a long conversation. And it is imperative that, when negotiating the price of something one really wants, one is never, ever afraid to stand up and politely take one’s leave. Walking out is an immensely powerful bargaining tool the world over.
Except perhaps among the political leadership of our country. Bill Clinton didn’t understand it, which is why his “agreement” with Kim Jong-Il was long on “aspirational” language and short on verification. Nevertheless, it was waved about in triumph upon signing. Think “Denuclearization in our time.” The North Koreans dissembled throughout the process, complained about the “arrogance” of the United States when challenged about their undeclared uranium enrichment program and in general avoided restrictions that were verifiable and intrusive. It was a political prop, nothing more — a dead letter the moment it was signed.
The same applies to other recent agreements such as the Obama Administration’s “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” on Iran’s nuclear program, which has so many exceptions and caveats as to be meaningless. Here’s a clue about why that is: When one party to a negotiation lets its opponent know it will do anything to get a deal, any kind of deal, that party has already lost. That was precisely the problem with the JCPA.
President Trump, on the other hand, will take a deal if it is the right one. If it is not, he will smile, push back from the table, shake hands with everyone, and walk away. It is a stunning departure from the usual process, which involves months of “meetings before the meeting” to iron out the details to be “negotiated” in what amounts to a Kabuki theatre of the principals, embedded in a production whose choreography is worthy of the Bolshoi Ballet. It is unexpected. It is an insult to all things predictable. And it is effective: Now the North Koreans have to second-guess their approach.
The last time we saw this behavior from an American president was in Reykjavik; Mikhail Gorbachev pulled one of the well-known Soviet “what’s mine is mine, what’s yours is negotiable” tricks, followed by theatrical bluster. But he chose the wrong pigeon: Ronald Reagan got up and walked out. A few months later, we had the first of many important arms control agreements with the USSR.
Sometimes history’s lessons are simple; one merely has to pay attention to grasp them. In this instance it’s clear that at least one person has.
His name is Donald Trump.
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily News.
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