Donald Trump is a terrible diplomat because he’s a terrible negotiator

Unpredictability spells defeat in both politics and business deals

Our President-Elect is finding whole new ways to upend diplomatic protocol and precedent. Trump offered to negotiate on behalf of a controversial ally, tweeted a diplomatic insult to the UK, and called a brutal dictator’s reign “a miracle.” So when, Trump felt the need to converse with Taiwan yesterday, it was par for the course.

Does this gaffe seem mundane to you? Trump supporters certainly saw this as hypocrisy after President Obama’s recent arms deals with Taiwan. Why, they ask, should Trump be held to a double standard? How could a phone call be worse than a multi-billion dollar arms sale?

(And what news story wouldn’t feature Trump himself tweeting about it?)

Note: Pro-independence newspaper, Taipei Times, reports that the call was scheduled, and initiated, by Trump.

These folks (and Trump himself) are missing the point. The gaffe here isn’t that Trump spoke on the phone to someone. Rather, in less than 24 hours, Trump broke with 40 years of bipartisan policy on China and Taiwan.

For 40 years, the United States has been selling munitions and equipment to Taiwan — as required by law under the Taiwan Relations Act. These aren’t cutting-edge technologies, and that’s the point . These are useful for defense, but not to carry a fight to China in a bid to achieve du jure independence. China understands this as well: despite 40 years of arms sales, it has never launched more than a perfunctory protest.

Recognizing Taiwan’s de facto independence is a totally different story. It’s not by accident that an American president hasn’t spoken to the president of Taiwan since 1979. When we normalized relations with China, not giving legitimacy to Taiwan was part of the deal. Reneging on this deal has enormous political and economic costs.

Don’t get me wrong — it is the prerogative of the president to shift U.S. policy. But this is an awful way to go about doing it. Think about how much thought went into just the timing of the most recent U.S.-Taiwan arms deal:

Despite China’s formal protest, the mainland’s relatively warm ties with Ma may blunt the sting of the U.S. arms sale; a sale to a Democratic Progressive Party administration could send a far different signal to Communist Party leaders in Beijing.
That’s because the opposition party is more skeptical about the benefits of cozying up to Beijing, and some of the party’s supporters advocate pursuing outright independence from the mainland. If Washington had waited until after the Jan. 16 elections to announce the sale, it could be perceived in Beijing as a sign that the U.S. was rewarding the Democratic Progressive Party for its cooler stance toward the mainland.
Some Nationalists pointed to the deal as a sign that the United States was congratulating Ma for keeping peace with China. “This has real significance,” said Nationalist legislator Tsai Chin-lung. “They’re going to help a peacemaker, not a troublemaker.”

Yet, Trump ignores offers from the State Department to help manage his conversations with heads of state. Offers that would easily avoid gaffes such as this.

Consistency is key. Diplomacy can seem routine and boring at times, but only because countries know what to expect from each other. This a good thing! Consistency reduces the risk of misunderstandings, which in turn enables treaties and can prevent war.

Instead, Trump thinks that consistency is a sign of weakness, and that unpredictability is a virtue. He has shared this point of view repeatedly across several topics. For example, his comments on the potential use of nuclear weapons while president:

Well, it is an absolute last stance. And, you know, I use the word unpredictable. You want to be unpredictable.
And somebody recently said — I made a great business deal. And the person on the other side was interviewed by a newspaper. And how did Trump do this? And they said, he’s so unpredictable. And I didn’t know if he meant it positively or negative. It turned out he meant it positively.

His comments on using the debt limit as a bargaining chip:

“OK, I would use the debt limit,” Trump responded. “I don’t want to say — I want to be unpredictable, because, you know, we need unpredictability. Everything is so predictable with our country.

And his comments on Mosul in one of the presidential debates:

“They think a lot of the ISIS leaders are in Mosul. We have announcements coming out of Washington and coming out of Iraq: “We will be attacking Mosul in three weeks or four weeks.” All of these bad leaders from ISIS are leaving Mosul,” Trump said. “Why can’t they do it quietly? Why can’t they make it a sneak attack? And after the attack is made, inform the American public that we’ve knocked out their leaders.”

This is the hallmark of an incompetent, or at least inexperienced, diplomat. But it’s not his background, or lack thereof, as a diplomat that is key here. The key is his incompetence as a negotiator.

Yes, the subject of The Art of the Deal is a bad negotiator.

Back in April, Deepak Malhotra and Jonathan Powell identified five ways that Trump lacks sophisticated negotiation skills, each of which is troubling for the next four years of American diplomacy.

1. “Preconditions and ultimatums are usually bad ideas.” Especially if you don’t follow up on your threats. Case in point: the bluster around his New York Times meeting last week. Waffling back and forth in the span of less than 24 hours, then acting like nothing happened, is what leads to other parties not taking you seriously.

2. “You don’t need an amazing deal — you need an implementable deal.” Trump repeatedly hit the Obama administration for its terrible deals, in particular, the Iran Deal. But a lot of times some deal is better than no deal at all. Especially when it comes to nuclear weapons.

3. “They lose does not equal you win.” Good negotiators operate in an “I win, you lose” mentality. The best negotiators find win-win scenarios. Donald Trump operates almost exclusively in the former bucket, as proven by his repeated promises to beat China, Mexico, and other “opponents.”

4. “You have to help them save face.” Just because you’ve won a negotiation, or an election in this case, doesn’t mean you have carte blanche to rub your opponents’ faces in the dirt. Your opponent today may turn out to be a critical ally tomorrow.

5. “You have to have the courage to tell supporters what they don’t want to hear.” This means to stop trying to explain away promises as not speaking literally. If a policy isn’t realistic, true leaders will explain why.

Donald Trump will be both our negotiator-in-chief and our diplomat-in-chief in just 48 days. Now is the time for him to start acting like it.