Beating the Bully

In your own language

Eduardo del Buey
Foto: Ap
La Jornada Maya

Martes 12 de junio, 2018

After seventeen months of dealing with President Donald Trump on NAFTA and trade negotiations, many ask how we can beat the U.S. bully that he personifies.

First of all, President Trump is not only a bully, but also a narcissist who cannot accept criticism in any form, nor can he accept to be denied what he seeks. Indeed, reports about his telephone conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron are circulating and underscore that President Trump reacted very poorly to President Macron’s criticisms of the tariffs. That “bromance” may now be on the ropes.

President Trump’s negotiating technique is intimidation.

His negotiating strategy seems to be to change the goalposts as the game progresses and to keep the opposition off-guard. While this may work in New York real estate negotiations, it is not always conducive to productive diplomacy.

He seeks to constantly marginalize, exclude or manipulate his opponents to their detriment through intimidation or outright insult.

He seeks to monopolize the conversation and steer the dialogue.

The way to deal with this narcissistic bully is to hit him where it hurts politically – his base.

Canada and Mexico have already announced retaliatory measures to the recent US tariffs by targeting products made in “Trump country” otherwise known as regions where his base is strong. By targeting his base, they seek to create a wedge between President Trump and those who will vote in the mid-term elections in November, and the presidential elections in 2020.

But is this enough?

Should Mexico and Canada allow the Trump Administration to manage the conversation, or should they turn the tables and put him on the defensive? There is an argument for an intelligently crafted, more aggressive, yet cautious stance given the relative power of the American economy versus that of Mexico and Canada.

First of all, on top of retaliatory tariffs, Canadian and Mexican officials and cabinet members must be aggressive in reminding the American Administration and the public that these tariffs on steel are supposed to be targeting China, that they are off-strategy, unfair and in fact illegal. Going to the World Trade Organization for a fast ruling is a legal, accepted mechanism which might provide both with a lot of political capital and public opinion support.

While President Trump has little time for the World Trade Organization, it provides other countries with a rallying point around which to solidify an anti-Trump movement – one that can serve to isolate the United States from the global community and to lead Americans to question their current leadership, especially if Republicans begin to divide on the issue of tariffs.

Secondly, both Canada and Mexico should set enforceable red lines for continuing negotiations on the now jeopardized NAFTA talks. It might make a lot of sense to re-clarify and agree upon objectives for NAFTA negotiations in view of these recent decisions on tariffs. Canada and Mexico should continue sending serious messages that the U.S. administration has veered from the objectives of the talks and must come back on course for the talks to work.

One such red line has been set by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

On May 31, 2018, he told a press conference that “We have to believe that at some point their common sense will prevail, but we see no sign of that in this action today by the U.S. administration.” Prime Minister Trudeau went on to thoroughly reject President Trump’s demand that a renegotiated NAFTA have a five-year life span.

This is the strongest comment by a Canadian Prime Minister on the policy of a sitting U.S. President in recent memory.

Thirdly, in his quest to “divide and conquer”, President Trump suggested once again last week that separate trade deals with Canada and Mexico might be a better way to go than a renegotiated three-way agreement.

This also crosses red lines that both Mexican and Canadian leaders have set by stating on many occasions that NAFTA is a three-way deal, and so it will remain as far as they are concerned.

While this attempt to change the goal posts during the game may appeal to some in all three countries and fits with the President’s negotiating style, there is strength in numbers, and both Canadian and Mexican strategists continue to pursue the three-way alternative. In their view, existing and potential supply chains are based on a three-country agreement, and their survival is crucial to the North American economy.

Let’s see if developments cause them to rethink this strategy.

Red lines are always a two-edged sword. While they can establish parameters for interaction, they must also be backed with a commitment to enforce them should the other side decide to call one’s bluff. A mistake or misjudgment can prove costly in economic terms or in terms of credibility therefore all options must be carefully vetted.

Should President Trump decide to formally withdraw the U.S. from NAFTA, Republicans who are up for re-election in November will have to explain to voters why the loss of jobs in their constituencies is good for them and good for the United States.

Pressuring the U.S. Congress has been a major objective of Canadian public diplomacy since President Trump took office. Many Republicans and Democrats are pro-free trade and Congress, which passed the NAFTA deal as legislation, could also pass new laws to keep it intact. Both Canada and Mexico must continue lobbying Congress and U.S. voters to make NAFTA a mid-term election issue. A number of Republican members of Congress came out last week against President Trump’s tariffs –noting full well that attackingallies is not clever diplomaticstrategy.

Finally, Prime Minister Trudeau has constantly asserted that no deal is better than a bad deal. At time of writing, the odds of President Trump signing off on a win-win-win deal where all three signatory nations benefit are close to nil. No new deal means that NAFTA stays as is unless the US Administration pulls out of NAFTA. Most Canadians applauded Prime Minister Trudeau’s tough stance against President Trump and know that if the President does decide to withdraw from NAFTA, that will not be the Prime Minister’s fault. But will the millions of U.S. workers who lose their jobs be as forgiving of the President and his Republican partners?

Should President Trump decide to pull out of NAFTA, the effects on the Mexican and Canadian economies will be felt by citizens of both countries. But with around nine million U.S. jobs at stake, the “jobs” President may well have a lot of explaining to do to his own party that could face a difficult election in November absent a job creating alternative.

Since the objective of the international community is to restrain President Trump’s bullying tendencies and rally Americans around an open and productive trade environment, any campaign must focus on the leader and not on the people whose support will be necessary to convince U.S. elected legislators to rein in the President.

The only way to fight the bully is to put him on the defensive and force him to back down.

By targeting his base economically, Canada, Mexico, and Europe can slow President Trump down and encourage his opponents in both the Democratic and Republican parties.

Republicans will then have a choice – back a loser or restrain him.

This proposed strategy is not nice and is not meant to be.

Playing nicely with the bully has a tremendous cost and is also tremendously risky so any strategy requires careful reflection and planning. It also requires a commitment by all players to an agreed strategy to ensure that President Trump does not play one against the other.

It is time to act, and act thoughtfully, decisively and in concert.

Lack of concerted action can only serve to strengthen the bully.

And that is not in anyone’s interests.

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