As an educator of politics and conflict resolution I’ve spent decades examining deals as they relate to conflict and peace. Negotiation is a key skill of statecraft because successful diplomacy can save millions of lives and avoid trillion-dollar military engagements that may cause years of suffering and still not be anywhere close to a resolution, like in Afghanistan. The study and assessments cannot make guarantees for predictions of future performance or outcomes, but there are many truths in the field.
One great frustration I’ve had is that Donald Trump, both as a candidate and as President, continues to get my field wrong. I have written about the damage caused by Trump blowing up deals, and what Trump has gotten wrong about the Iran Deal (among others). He does a tremendous disservice to those working for the causes of peace and justice around the world, and I would like to push back against these misconceptions and resist the normalization of his dangerous practices. They can perhaps work in his ruthless business deals but in statecraft the same game is potentially lethal to millions of human beings.
In his ghostwritten book, Art of the Deal, Trump outlines strategies he credits with delivering great contracts, the book’s author calls Trump “deeply disturbed” and “utterly untrustworthy.”
For the average contract the cost of litigation may be prohibitive to redressing damages. Indeed, Trump put small businesses out of business when he refused to pay in full, and the cases were not isolated. One of the strategies mentioned is to get your adversary back harder than they got you. It is a “teach them a lesson” behavior, and the functionality and failure of this strategy can be laid out clearly.
In my field we call the zero-sum-game distributive bargaining. In short this posits that there are winners and losers. The more you get, the more you win, and the less you get, the more you lose. Contracts are fixed events, and can be judged in this way. Real estate or used car sales work this way when a buyer and seller are unlikely to have future relationships with one another. It is normal for parties to “bargain” over costs and values. It is abnormal for parties to be dishonest or break agreements, but Trump also promotes the renegotiation of debt. Trump says ‘I’m smart’ for not paying taxes, and he doesn’t recognize an obligation to living up to his end of agreements. For him, the simple math is “the more I win, the more you lose.” There is only so much and every bit you get is a bit I lose. This is not true at all in the world of nation-state wellness.
Where “winning” and “losing” are part of normal competition, and it should be noted that competition is normal and healthy in the marketplace, is should also be noted that Trump’s behavior better models coercion—the practice of persuasion using force or threats. When the practitioner is free from moral inhibition, this is the practice of deception, hostage taking, and terrorism. Terrorists, just like Trump, achieve great success in distributive bargaining by maximizing leverage with pressure points. Boko Haram kidnaps girls because it sees “Western education as sin;” Donald Trump enacts policies separating children from their parents in order to try to achieve political ends and funding for a border wall. Coercive persuasion is frequently effective because of a moral component that is leveraged against one party. It is why parents rarely try to bargain over the cost of the life-threatening treatment required by a child when they can afford to pay it.
Sometimes “winning” is not about saving money, sometimes “winning” involves other interests like saving lives. This is called interest-based, or integrative, bargaining. This is particularly fruitful in its promise of collaborative—win-win—solutions. You may think of the doctor being interested in seeing the health of her patients and not just a healthy bank account, or of building a long-term business relationship on the basis of fair pricing and dependable trustworthiness. Profit can be a motive, but there is value to business relationships. Maybe instead of renegotiating the debt after the job Trump should have tried to get a better price by promising future work instead of relying on the ability of his attorneys to drive up the costs of litigation.
Collaboration is not for all disputes; one cannot partner with a Nazi, but it is great for addressing problems where relationships matter. The focus on mutually beneficial agreements will increase trust between parties and make those agreements more durable. Think of your neighbor. If you asked to borrow a hammer and promise to bring it back tomorrow, are they more likely to let you borrow it again if you bring it back as promised—or a month late? We build trust when we make and keep agreements.
Now think of Canada, or NATO, or any other trade partner. Canada is the U.S.’s neighbor, and they’ve been slapped in the face with steel tariffs and had lies told about trade deficits, are Trump’s efforts at “winning” strengthening relationships or building trust? If I were Canada I don’t think I’d let Trump borrow a hammer, he’d probably use it to brag about how he’d made a great deal on it. He tries to use distributive bargaining in an integrated world, and he misses three basic truths.
1. There are significant opportunity costs involved in treating international relations and diplomacy as zero-sum. Great losses are experienced when opportunities for mutual benefit are missed. We can think of Canada offering to pool resources with the U.S. in addressing a common threat. Take Russian involvement in elections amongst western nations as an example. Distributive bargaining might suggest the U.S. wins when they contribute the least possible in combatting Russian intervention. Trump might refuse to cost share stating that other NATO nations are not paying enough. The end result: The U.S. gets no help from Canada or Europe and they get no help from us; we are divided and conquered. Integrated bargaining, however, looks at complementarity and mutual gain. The larger the alliance, the greater the benefit…
2. Distributive bargaining focuses on getting your share of the pie, but there is no pie in international relations. When Trump complains that countries are not paying their fair share to NATO, for example, he acts like they owe the U.S. or have gotten the U.S.’s share of the pie, but they haven’t. The strength of the alliance is that all members in the alliance get all of the benefit, period. No country is stealing value or benefit from the U.S. There is a clear solution to the free rider problem (though Trump himself brags that non-payment is smart when he talks about his taxes) and that is getting rid of free riders. The real question is whether or not NATO is meeting the U.S.’s need or not? If it is then the U.S.’s 22 percent share of cost is a pretty good return on investment. And indeed, the common defense clause—the core value of NATO—has only been invoked once since its 1949 founding, to assist one nation attacked—the US, on 9.11.01.
3. There are a finite number of states and allies. Trump’s strategy of abusing those who did contract work for him in real-estate only worked because there were more contractors at his disposal. When he put one out of business, simply put, he could find another. The same is not true at the state level. The U.S. has two neighbors, Canada and Mexico, and they cannot take an infinite amount of abuse and bullying. If Trump doesn’t like this Mexico, he can’t just find a new Mexico.
Trump needs to understand that value to citizens is delivered in terms of quality of life and not shareholder profit; it is a country not a corporation. He also needs to understand the exceptional potential costs for his failures. Relationships are not disposable, and should not be treated as conveniences or luxuries. But also that the costs of war are high. His distributive approach to North Korea—where Kim mopped the floor with him—was a complete failure, and we’re lucky there has not been more significant fallout, and his alienation of U.S. allies only creates new obstacles to the development of peace. Most fundamentally Trump needs to understand that real leadership is about making the world a better place and his myopic MAGA focus on Making America Great Again continues to fail both U.S. and global interests.