I worked on international negotiations under Obama — and now I’m watching from the sidelines as the Trump team gets it all wrong. By Ilan Goldenberg
Earlier this week, the New York Times ran a remarkable story explaining all of the ways in which the Trump administration botched its high-stakes trade negotiations with China. I am not an expert on China and don’t know that much about trade, but I do know a little something about diplomatic negotiations. I was part of the team led by then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that tried and failed to negotiate peace between Israelis and Palestinians from 2013 to 2014, and though I was not on the team that negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, I was part of the small interagency group that worked on this issue in the years before negotiations got serious and watched them very closely throughout.
Based on these experiences, what was stunning to learn about the China trade negotiations was how at every step of the way, U.S. President Donald Trump’s economic team did precisely the wrong thing. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Director of Trade and Industrial Policy Peter Navarro, Chief Economic Advisor Larry Kudlow, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross executed a textbook case study in how to not conduct international negotiations.
Failure to prepare
The key to a successful international negotiation starts before getting in the room, with preparation that gets the U.S. team on the same page. This is not easy. Any tough issue, whether it be trade with China or Iran’s nuclear program, is complicated. There are going to be disagreements among U.S. officials on the best course forward. Indeed, it is a healthy sign of a vigorous policy process. The way to prepare is for the national security bureaucracy to hold interagency meetings where the various representatives from the different agencies come together and deliberate, debate, and ultimately decide on the U.S. position and strategy. The negotiators then go out and conduct the negotiations until they get to a point where they feel they cannot make any more progress without guidance from Washington, in which case they call home or come home for further deliberations.
In the case of the China trade discussions, the team included multiple Cabinet officials. And since they clearly had fundamental disagreements, the only person with the seniority to settle the matter and provide instructions was Trump. Unfortunately, he does not bother to engage in the details and break these types of deadlocks, instead often choosing to simply listen to the last person who briefs him. And so the administration was not able to work out these disagreements in advance, and the U.S. negotiating team showed up for talks with the Chinese without a clear unified position.
This is the precise opposite of what we saw from former President Barack Obama, who, especially on the Iran nuclear negotiations, was deeply engaged in the details. Some might justifiably argue that at moments this led to micromanagement. But U.S. negotiators usually knew where the president was, and they knew how far they could go and when they needed to ask for more guidance.
What happens when differences inside the team are not settled in advance of talks? As the New York Times reported, in the middle of a session with the Chinese, Navarro and Mnuchin “stepped outside to engage in a profanity-laced shouting match.” When these divisions become apparent, a classic tactic is to exploit the wedge and find the negotiator with the most flexible position, which is precisely what the Chinese tried by zeroing in on Mnuchin. It also created confusion for the Chinese. They did not understand the U.S. position or precisely who spoke for the United States. When that happens, your counterpart becomes very cautious and takes an inflexible negotiating position. If Mnuchin makes a promise, do the Chinese know if that commitment will survive the internal split? If not, they would fear making a major concession, only to see it pocketed by the United States before someone else on the U.S. negotiating team comes back to ask for more.
In the Obama administration, we were far from perfect on this score. During the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, there were disagreements between the National Security Council and the State Department and moments when Kerry and then-National Security Advisor Susan Rice had tough debates, including in front of Obama. There were moments late at night when sleep deprivation and total frustration got the best of even the most disciplined negotiator, and disagreements emerged among the team that counterparts could sense. But the notion of a profanity-laced tirade between two U.S. lead negotiators in front of the Israelis or Palestinians? To me that is unimaginable. (We tried to save our profanity-laced tirades for our Israeli and Palestinian friends, instead of for our own team. Especially while we were in the room with counterparts).
Leaking sensitive negotiating positions
The next classic mistake the Trump administration made during negotiations was leaking sensitive positions. There is a reason not to do this. International negotiations are tough. They require unpopular sacrifices on all sides that are likely to generate political blowback at home. Prematurely publicizing your own concessions or those of your negotiating partners gives opponents of the ammunition to immediately attack. Instead, the sounder approach is to get to a full deal that both sides can sell at home and then release the entire package at once. At that point, each side selectively chooses the good parts of the deal that they will emphasize with their domestic audience.
But that is precisely the opposite of what the administration did. It started with the president himself tweeting that the United States would consider offering economic benefits to the Chinese telecommunications firm ZTE as part of an agreement. He was trying to communicate this point to the Chinese, but that could have been done through a phone call to Chinese President Xi Jinping. It did not need to go to the Trump’s 52 million twitter followers. Immediately, the administration faced backlash from opponents on Capitol Hill, thus reducing flexibility to make a central concession that was a necessary part of the agreement with China.
The administration also leaked and then publicly stated that the Chinese were prepared to reduce their trade surplus with the United States by $200 billion. Chinese negotiators responded by denying it and started walking back from the position, as they faced attacks at home.
This stands in sharp contrast to how the Obama administration negotiated the Iran nuclear deal in almost complete secrecy. The initial talks, through Oman, happened with no public knowledge. And before the most important breakthrough — which came in April 2015 when the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, plus Germany) and Iran agreed in Lausanne, Switzerland, on a set of parameters that set the stage for the final negotiations on the accord — no one knew what the deal would include. And when the details were released, the two sides emphasized very different elements. The U.S. team focused on the fact that Iran had agreed to intrusive inspections and would only keep 661 pounds of low-enriched uranium — not enough for one nuclear weapon. The Iranians emphasized the sanctions relief and the 6,000 centrifuges it would still have spinning. Imagine if instead Obama had publicly tweeted in advance of the deal that Iran had agreed to remove all but 661 pounds of low-enriched uranium from the country. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei would have tweeted out an immediate denial, and the Iranian negotiators’ position would have hardened. Similarly, if Obama had started tweeting the specifics of sanctions relief he was willing to offer Iran, he would have faced immediate backlash from Democratic allies on the Hill, who at the time were still on the fence about the agreement.
Circular firing squad
The final disaster in Trump’s failed China negotiation was that various members of the U.S. team came out publicly with different positions. Days after the negotiations ended, Lighthizer put out a statement that was widely understood as an implicit criticism of Mnuchin. And even worse was the story in the New York Times, which was well sourced, with details that could only have come from the U.S. participants themselves. How is this team supposed to work together on this issue now? How can they trust each other after they have just finished knifing each other in the back, while also airing all of their dirty laundry for the world — and most importantly, for the Chinese — to see?
When the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that I worked on collapsed, there was deep frustration inside the U.S. team, and some disagreements about what we should say publicly and how we could have done things differently. But it is completely unimaginable to me that the State Department and the White House would have put out conflicting press statements implicitly criticizing each other. And while all sides — the United States, the Israelis, and Palestinians — were frustrated and put out stories blaming each other, that does not compare to the New York Times expose coming only days after the talks collapsed, with all of the Americans going after each other. It is a sign of an unhealthy situation inside the U.S. negotiating team.
Negotiations are already hard — don’t make them even harder
High-stakes diplomatic negotiations are difficult. The issues are complicated. Domestic politics apply additional pressure. Even if you are the most brilliant, disciplined, cohesive negotiating team, chances are higher that you will fail rather than succeed.
Numerous administrations have made many mistakes in trying to negotiate Israeli-Palestinian peace, but even perfect U.S. negotiators might not be able to solve a problem without the right partners on both sides. And even the example of the Iran nuclear deal is not necessarily a model for success. It may have been a historic agreement that was far superior to the alternatives, but the Obama administration’s failure to build domestic support and account for the possibility of a successor who would try to tear the deal down left it vulnerable.
But what is clear is that if you do not do the very simple, basic things right, there is no way you will even get close to a major international breakthrough. The fiasco that was the China trade negotiation should leave us all very concerned. For an administration that was on the cusp of holding a high-stakes nuclear summit with North Korea, has walked away from the Iran nuclear agreement, and is still trying to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, there is no indication that Trump and his team have any clue what the “art of the deal” is about when it comes to international diplomacy.
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