A recent editorial noted that it was difficult to be a negotiator representing President Donald Trump. I think that is probably true, and it seems very likely that Trump is negotiating with his negotiators.
I recall doing something similar with a lawyer for our business many years ago. He wanted to take the safe route and settle a case. I urged him to go make our case in court, an uncomfortable option because of the risk of losing. Well, we won.
Maybe I was just lucky. But that is when I learned that any deal that wasn’t a clear loss was a win from a lawyer’s perspective.
Like a lawyer, U.S. negotiators are partly driven by their personal interests. Successfully negotiating a trade agreement with a major trading partner probably creates a lifetime of opportunities. Once the deal is done, they can spin it any way they want for their own advantage.
If the president says no to their tentative agreement, then U.S. negotiators have nothing for their résumé. If you are a professional negotiator, no deal is like failing to score a touchdown in the red zone and then missing the chip-shot field goal besides. You can point to the equivalent of yardage statistics, but accomplishments short of the goal just aren’t very reassuring when someone is considering your expensive rate.
Trump is pushing his negotiators out of their comfort zones. Plus, he gives the impression that he just might get up and walk away from a bad deal to the countries on the other side of the negotiating table. You don’t have to read “The Art of the Deal” to know that being willing to walk away from the table is critical for successful negotiations.
One might think our negotiators would find some advantage in this. If getting a deal done is viewed as politically critical for a president, so critical that any deal is better than no deal, opposing negotiators have huge advantages.
I think President Trump’s natural state of consciousness is one of negotiation. It may be surprising to some, but this is somewhat common for business owners who take a hands-on approach to putting the deals together that drive their top and bottom lines. As a way of doing business, it develops in the early days of their firms’ fight for survival and they depend on this survival mindset to stay in business over the years. Many operate on thin margins.
It’s a little like driving. It looks easy, but if you take your eyes off the road for a few seconds, life can be over.
A survival mindset and a negotiating disposition go hand in hand.
It seems like the consistent goal of decades of bilateral and multilateral negotiation has been to avoid terrible deals if possible, but not at the cost of failing to get a deal done. The way the press reacts to Trump’s approach to negotiating, even discounting their personal dislike of the man, makes me think we have probably been taken to the cleaners many times in the past on trade deals. I’m OK with trying something different.
Negotiation as a state of mind doesn’t preclude strategic intent. That may be why Trump has a chance for successful negotiations where so many previous administrations have failed. I pray that he is successful. The country and the world need him to be successful, not only in trade deals, but in all the critical diplomatic negotiations as well.
I don’t care if he takes the credit in some irritating way. The issues are bigger than he is.
Ben Riechers lives in Andover.