Trump is upsetting DC's negotiating model - and that's a good thing

Trump is upsetting DC's negotiating model - and that's a good thing
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President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump reversed course on flavored e-cigarette ban over fear of job losses: report Trump to award National Medal of Arts to actor Jon Voight Sondland notified Trump officials of investigation push ahead of Ukraine call: report MORE’s negotiation with North Korea hasn’t yielded verified denuclearization by Pyongyang, but it has changed the way future presidents may deal with “difficult” countries.

Trump scandalized the national security establishment, first by trading insults with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, then personally taking charge of negotiating denuclearization with the ‘Hermit Kingdom’ instead of waiting until American and North Korean staff officers had negotiated the technical details, a process that could take several years.

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Trump, as an elected official and an impatient man, is mindful of the political calendar and is shaping aspects of his foreign policy to advance the 2020 campaign: The troop withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan are proof he is ending the “forever wars” and not embarking on new, costly foreign adventures.

Likewise, Trump wants to show the voters that, after 65 years of muddle on the Korean peninsula, he is taking charge. High risk? Sure, but if it doesn’t work, Trump can tweet “We did all we could!” and likely not suffer at the polls.

What is Trump doing differently?

North Korea has a deserved reputation as a zero-sum negotiator but, by walking out of the talks in Hanoi, Trump signaled to Kim that the U.S. can be the difficult one. And Kim has absorbed that message: Though North Korean diplomats disputed Trump’s account of why the talks collapsed, Pyongyang announced that Kim was ready to meet Trump again, and soon.

And it played well with the opposition: Susan Rice, President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe Democratic race for president may not sort itself out 'Too Far Left' hashtag trends on Twitter Krystal Ball: Patrick's 2020 bid is particularly 'troublesome' for Warren MORE’s national security advisor, admitted that Trump made the right move by walking away from the talks. North Korea’s neighbors, Japan and South Korea, likewise backed Trump’s move, with one Japanese official observing "Mr. Trump succeeded in setting in place the kind of dynamics between the two — one begging and the other refusing."

Trump is reversing the way the U.S. approaches negotiations.

Typically, a meeting with a senior — but not too senior — American official is a reward for compliant behavior by whomever America identifies as the current miscreant. Trump knows in some cases meeting the American President is a way to make progress by paying the strongman respect he thinks he’s due.

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Trump’s “meeting first” approach is causing anxiety among some national security practitioners who feel, correctly, that extensive preparation is required for high-stakes nuclear negotiations to yield an agreement that must stand the test of time. Alongside the politics is the care that must be paid to the technical details of nuclear treaty verification that require the advice of experienced specialists. (The New START nuclear arms reduction treaty between the U.S. and Russia runs to 356 pages.)

But fear not! Trump isn’t oblivious to the need for written agreements; we all know he’s a man who appreciates a good NDA.

Trump’s approach is upsetting the Washington, D.C. negotiating model. The way Trump does it, the bosses come to heads of agreement and the staffs fill in the details. Lost in this approach is the long public “runway” of speeches, op-eds, panels, books, and leaks the policy community uses to coalesce around the agreed narrative for an issue.  

But given Trump’s mistrust of the swamp creatures ("These are the same people who said Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction.") who he feels blundered into the “endless wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan, he may have a point in wanting to make the initial moves himself. He may feel that setting the initial parameters himself will ensure he can’t be hemmed in by staff-level decisions.

There’s also an element of social anxiety at play. Trump’s method deprives policy practitioners of the chance to put their desired mark on the result. And when you’re hunting for that follow-on think tank or talking head gig, the response you get may depend on whether you are viewed as the copy editor or the auteur.

Trump’s successors will have to contend with his precedent and may be pushed to personally intervene with autocrats who will hold out for a meeting with the American President (that they will use to bolster their power at home) before serious negotiations begin. And that may be a good trade-off, but it will rarely occur as Trump already regularly meets Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping, and hinted he would meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who he described as “an absolutely lovely man.”

Like much of what Trump does, these actions promise progress or peril. If his North Korea gambit pays off, the next president will have more tools to address America’s future national security challenges.

James Durso (@james_durso) is the managing director of Corsair LLC, a supply chain consultancy. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Durso served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years and specialized in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority. He served afloat as Supply Officer of the submarine USS SKATE (SSN 578).