Trump’s reliance on pressure tactics is showing diminishing returns

President Trump’s brinkmanship with Mexico over immigration has opened a new and risky front in his global campaign to pressure other nations to capitulate to his demands, a strategy that has paid few dividends over 2½ years and left his major foreign policy initiatives in doubt.

From his “fire and fury” rhetoric against a nuclear-armed North Korea to an escalating trade war with China to new ultimatums aimed at Mexico, Trump has wielded threats, insults and punishments against his foreign counterparts with diminishing returns.

Though he lured Kim Jong Un to the negotiating table through a “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions, Trump’s historic summits with the young dictator ended in failure after talks collapsed in February.

President Trump’s brinkmanship with Mexico over immigration has opened a new and risky front in his global campaign to pressure other nations to capitulate to his demands, a strategy that has paid few dividends over 2½ years and left his major foreign policy initiatives in doubt.

From his “fire and fury” rhetoric against a nuclear-armed North Korea to an escalating trade war with China to new ultimatums aimed at Mexico, Trump has wielded threats, insults and punishments against his foreign counterparts with diminishing returns.

Though he lured Kim Jong Un to the negotiating table through a “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions, Trump’s historic summits with the young dictator ended in failure after talks collapsed in February.

And although Mexico took steps to comply with Trump’s hard-line immigration policies — allowing Central American asylum seekers to the United States a temporary haven — Trump’s vow this week to impose sweeping tariffs unless that nation curbs unauthorized immigration into the United States stirred a public backlash.

For Trump, who campaigned on achieving “peace through strength,” the consistent application of a tool kit of toughness has limited his options and left him in a precarious position as he accelerates his campaign for a second term.

Despite his pressure tactics, unauthorized immigration at the U.S.-Mexican border is at a 12-year peak, the tariff wars have sent jitters through Wall Street, and Pyongyang has resumed testing of short-range missiles, a sign that Kim is growing impatient.

“It strikes me that we are in the middle of an unprecedented and multifaceted experiment in the application of brute force,” said Daniel Russel, who served as an assistant secretary of state on Asian affairs in the Obama administration. “President Trump has been extraordinarily effective at generating leverage . . . but it has yet to be shown that he has the ability to translate that leverage into results that are advantageous to the United States or are durable.”

Trump campaigned on the theme that the rest of the world was taking advantage of the United States because of weak political leaders who valued multilateral partnerships over the unapologetic pursuit of national self-interest. He pledged that, as president, he would not hesitate to pressure rivals and allies alike to win a better deal for Americans.

“Mexico must take back their country from the drug lords and cartels,” Trump tweeted Friday. “The Tariff is about stopping drugs as well as illegals!”

Foreign leaders initially sought to placate him by offering modest concessions, hopeful that it would satisfy Trump’s domestic political imperatives by allowing him to trumpet small victories.

The Trump administration renegotiated a bilateral trade deal with South Korea and, after ripping up the 25-year old North American Free Trade Agreement, crafted a new accord with Mexico and Canada that experts said included valuable modernizations of some trade rules.

In Europe, some NATO members moved to accelerate previous pledges to increase their own national defense budgets amid Trump’s complaints that they were freeloading off the United States’ security umbrella — and his vague threats, first issued during his 2016 campaign, that he would pull out the United States of the alliance.

But on his signature initiatives, Trump’s go-to tactics have faltered and the president has grown increasingly frustrated, prompting him in recent weeks to escalate his threats and punitive actions.

In early May, for example, after U.S. negotiators accused Beijing of attempting to backtrack on agreements after months of trade talks, Trump responded by raising tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods that he enacted last year from 10 percent to 25 percent.

That prompted Beijing to announce it would “fight to the end” and raise duties on $60 billion of American goods on June 1.

Trump administration officials have said the president feels emboldened by the strength of the U.S. economy and believes he can outlast his rivals in a showdown that could harm both economies. But some analysts said that the president could be dangerously miscalculating his position given the uncertainty of his own political prospects.

“I know that Trump considers the 2020 campaign as a triumphant march to the inevitable [reelection], but that’s not the way the rest of the world is looking at it,” said Christopher R. Hill, who served as a U.S. ambassador under the four presidents who preceded Trump. “You’re already seeing the Chinese holding back and saying, ‘We’ll see what will happen over the next 18 months to see if he’s still around and then maybe we’ll do something.’ To some extent, Trump does not have the self-awareness to understand that people are looking at the window closing on him.”

For Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a liberal who took office in December, Trump’s threats are a serious concern, given that 80 percent of Mexico’s exports enter the U.S. market. But López Obrador, who dispatched diplomats to visit Washington on Friday, is facing increasing calls from the public and political columnists to take a tougher line with the White House.

Trump, frustrated by Mexico’s refusal to pay for a border wall, flirted with a plan to seal the southern border to trade and tourism in April before backing off over concerns from advisers about the effect on the American economy. This week, however, amid reports that U.S. authorities apprehended nearly 120,000 unauthorized immigrants at the border last month, Trump overrode similar warnings from aides.

What’s so striking with him is his willingness to pick multiple fights without thinking through the consequences,” said Eliot Cohen, a former State Department adviser in the George W. Bush administration who organized a “Never Trump” coalition of foreign policy experts during the 2016 campaign. “The Mexico thing is a great example. It could really hurt him domestically.”

Other analysts noted that Trump’s trade war with China could harm his efforts to negotiate a nuclear weapons disarmament pact with North Korea, given that the president has counted on Beijing maintaining tough economic sanctions on Pyongyang.

But Trump has shown few signs of second-guessing himself. He has threatened new auto tariffs on Japan to win leverage in ongoing trade talks, although he announced during a state visit to Tokyo last week that he would delay any action for six months.

And Trump’s reputation for hostility has preceded him. In London, where Trump will arrive next week on a state visit to meet Queen Elizabeth, Sky News broadcast a promotional video featuring a Trump baby balloon, flown by protesters during Trump’s visit last summer, darkening the skies with the ominous tag­line, “He’s back.”

“One of Trump’s major failings is that he only has a hammer,” said Andrea Schneider, a professor of law at Marquette University who focuses on negotiations and has studied Trump’s tactics. “He has no capacity of looking at the long term and recognizing that the vast majority of our interactions in life are repeat interactions. I joke with my students that if you treat negotiations as a one-shot deal, it will be. No one will ever want to deal with you again.”

Trump is so obsessed with winning that he might make America lose

In his zero-sum universe, you’re either victorious or you’re defeated.

 “I win against China. You can win against China if you’re smart,” he said at a campaign event in July 2015.
.. “Vast numbers of manufacturing jobs in Pennsylvania have moved to Mexico and other countries. That will end when I win!”
.. “China, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, these countries are all taking our jobs, like we’re a bunch of babies. That will stop,”
.. In Trump’s view of the world, there is a finite amount of everything — money, security, jobs, victories — and nothing can be shared.
.. It’s a universe where the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must, as Thucydides said.
.. The problem is that the triumphs that Trump craves — strength, safety, prosperity — cannot be achieved alone.
.. They require friends and allies, and they require the president to see those people as partners, not competitors.
.. other governments don’t like to be punching bags, the only role he appears to envision for them.
.. In real estate, relationships often take the form of one-off transactions: You can cheat people you’ll never do business with again.
.. Winners have trade surpluses, and losers have trade deficits.
.. The United States is the biggest economy with the biggest military, and therefore the United States has leverage to get the best deals. If we don’t emerge from negotiation with a clear advantage, that’s because our negotiator was a soft-headed, do-gooder globalist who didn’t put America first.
.. Washington has the most leverage when it deals with countries one on one, which is why, he says, “we need bilateral trade deals,” not “another international agreement that ties us up and binds us down.”
To abide by the same rules as less-powerful countries would be to sublimate American interests to those of lesser nations.
..  Trump seeks to begin negotiations with a threat that forces the other side to defend its smaller piece. He pledges to tear up NAFTA, rip up the Iran nuclear deal and revisit America’s relationship with NATO — unless he gets concessions.
.. he gains advantage not by telling the truth but by saying things he believes will boost his bargaining power and sell his vision: China has been allowed to “rape our country.”
.. He’s just an alliance-hating unilateralist.
..  he sees three kinds of immigrants:
  1. smart guys from smart countries, like Norway,
  2. undeserving charity cases from “shithole” countries and
  3. terrorists/gang members who threaten ordinary Americans.

.. The zero-sum cosmology touches everything. Obamacare supposedly sticks us with the bill for people who should pay for their own insurance — or a find a job that provides it.

..  he doesn’t exercise, because “the human body was like a battery, with a finite amount of energy, which exercise only depleted.”

..  China is more a strategic competitor than a real partner linked by shared values.

.. “after more than four decades of serving as the nation’s economic majority, the American middle class is now matched in number by those in the economic tiers above and below it.” That’s a real problem, and Trump is right to point it out.

.. He could have demanded that NATO members pay more without signaling that he might abandon the mutual-defense agreement that undergirds a treaty to contain Russia.

.. Relations among nations are not like real estate deals. The president has to negotiate with the same people again the next month, and they’ll remember how they’ve been treated.

Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu never forgave President Barack Obama for openly criticizing his approach to settlement-building;

imagine how every other leader feels about being constantly humiliated by Trump.

.. Other countries form judgments about whether American promises are credible and whether they can trust the president. Trump says he’s willing to talk with North Korea about its nuclear program, but surely Kim Jong Un is watching as Trump threatens to shred the Iran nuclear agreement.

..  The Belt and Road Initiative, China’s plan to blaze new commercial trails and cement new political ties via infrastructure investment in dozens of countries, is seven times larger than the Marshall Plan when adjusted for inflation.

.. More than 120 nations already trade more with China than with the United States.

.. China is investing in smaller European Union members like Hungary and Greece to alter official E.U. attitudes toward Beijing. That’s why the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump quashed, was more than just a trade deal. By joining, Trump could have expanded U.S. ties with many of China’s neighbors, governments that fear overreliance on China’s goodwill for future growth.

.. Trump’s win-or-lose philosophy is most confused when it comes to immigration. Foreigners who want to become Americans are not charity cases. They participate in the labor force at higher rates (73.4 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) than native-born Americans.

.. Trump’s tendency to hire foreign guest workers over Americans at his own properties suggests that he understands something about how hard they work.

.. The undocumented contribute $13 billion to the nation’s retirement fund each year and get just $1 billion in return.

.. “More than three out of every four patents at the top 10 patent-producing US universities (76%) had at least one foreign-born inventor,”

..  tourism has fallen 4 percent, with a resulting loss of 40,000 jobs. Foreign applications to U.S. universities are down, too.

.. he doesn’t seem to know that some of our country’s greatest success stories began in failure.

  1. Thomas Edison famously erred 1,000 times on the way to inventing the light bulb — it “was an invention with 1,000 steps,” he said.
  2. Henry Ford went broke repeatedly before he succeeded.
  3. Steve Jobs, a college dropout, was fired from the company he founded. Even
  4. Trump’s own businesses have gone bankrupt.

.. If he wants to track terrorists before they try to enter the United States, he needs support from foreign intelligence services.

.. Today, the United States doesn’t have that kind of leverage, and Trump’s aggressive criticism of other countries, including allies, poisons public attitudes toward the United States and makes it harder for foreign leaders to cooperate with Washington publicly.

.. Trump and his leadership at some of the lowest levels since Pew began tracking the U.S. image abroad in 2002. Almost three-quarters of those surveyed said they have little to no confidence in Trump.

.. if Trump wants to make the best deals, he’ll need to learn a few words:

  1. respect,
  2. cooperation and
  3. compromise.

These ideas won’t fire up a campaign rally. But they might help build an American strategy that works.