As a candidate, Trump was relentless in assailing a handful of multilateral deals
But since taking office, Trump has shown little inclination to craft agreements or negotiate new deals
Like sandcastles and snowmen, international diplomatic deals are difficult and time-consuming to build, but exceptionally easy to smash, topple or abandon.
President Donald Trump’s brand, from well before he entered the 2016 presidential race, was that of a builder and dealmaker. But Trump himself has been the brand for decades, slapping his name on hotels and other luxury items around the world.
Since taking office, however, he has shown little inclination to craft agreements or negotiate new deals. A rare compromise with Democratic congressional leaders on a short-term increase in the debt ceiling, which left many Republicans flabbergasted, stands out as his most notable self-made accord.
On the flip side, Trump has proven willing and able to undo the work of his predecessors. Over his nearly nine months in office, the President has canceled negotiations on a major global trade deal, threatened to end two more, withdrawn the US from a global climate plan, and now, with his decision to “decertify” the multilateral Iran pact, imperiled an Obama-era agreement to limit Tehran’s nuclear activities, despite the public counsel of his secretary of defense to let it stand.
None of it should come as a surprise. Trump doesn’t exactly have a 100% record on his campaign promises, but he was relentless in assailing a handful of multilateral deals, usually with the rationale that they served the interests of other countries before those of the US.
The nuclear option
The Iran deal was “disastrous,” “catastrophic.” “I’ve never seen something so incompetently negotiated,” he said during a rally on Capitol Hill in September 2015. “And I mean never.”
But rather than trash it entirely, Trump seems to be pursuing a more politically pragmatic approach, effectively punting the deal’s future to Congress. There it would undergo a 60-day review and could, potentially, be scrapped and replaced by a new round of sanctions.
Mostly, though, it appears the decision was driven by Trump’s desire not to affix his name to quarterly presidential certifications currently required by the deal. (The logic tracks closely with his DACA decision, which sent the issue to Capitol Hill, and in so doing removed the prospect of his being required to defend the policy against a GOP-led court challenge.)
Au revoir, Paris
Like with DACA and Iran, Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Paris climate agreement was yet another rejection of Obama-era policy. Wiping out his predecessor’s legacy has been, since day one, Trump’s most clearly consistent priority. The Republican-held Congress’ inability to agree on an Obamacare repeal bill has galled him to no end.
But leaving the Paris deal, like getting in, doesn’t require meaningful acquiescence from Capitol Hill. So Trump, with plenty of nudging from his now-former adviser Steve Bannon, revealed on June 1 that the US would take its leave.
The announcement was an odd spectacle, more befitting of a deal made than broken. A jazz band played as Trump spoke in the White House Rose Garden.
“The United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accord, but begin negotiations to re-enter either the Paris accord or an really entirely new transaction, on terms that are fair to the United States, its businesses, its workers, its people, its taxpayers,” he said, always keen to allow some room for a reversal.
“So we’re getting out, but we will start to negotiate, and we will see if we can make a deal that’s fair,” Trump added. “And if we can, that’s great. And if we can’t, that’s fine.”
There has been little evidence, apart from a few chummy discussions with French President Emmanuel Macron, that Trump has any inclination to re-enter the pact. No serious negotiations, in pursuit of some more advantageous agreement, have been engaged.
TPP, NAFTA and Korea
Trump showcased his talent for undoing deals within the first 72 hours of his administration, when he signed an executive action pulling the US out of negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation deal that would have involved some 40% of the world economy.
The TPP decision was likely Trump’s most popular. It had been opposed by populist power bases in both the Republican and Democratic parties, both arguing that, as written, the pact didn’t do enough to prevent American jobs from being moved overseas, to countries where taxes and wages are lower. (Hillary Clinton, who touted it during her time as secretary of state, announced in October 2015 she would oppose the deal if elected.)
And then there is the lingering question of the NAFTA, the controversial 1994 agreement that opened up trade among the US, Mexico and Canada. Trump on the stump routinely ripped into the deal, which went into law during former President Bill Clinton’s first term (negotiations on it began during President George H.W. Bush’s administration). The US has lost nearly 5 million manufacturing jobs since then, according to the Labor Department, though it’s hard to assess blame with much more precision.
NAFTA remains in place for now, but like other deals – most notably the endangered 5-year-old US-Korea Free Trade Agreement – it is currently in a state of flux. New negotiations to reshape the Korean deal are imminent, a win for the Trump administration, but the early returns on NAFTA talks have been tepid at best.
“We are in the NAFTA (worst trade deal ever made) renegotiation process with Mexico & Canada,” Trump tweeted days after they began. “Both being very difficult, may have to terminate?”