President Trump's self-image is that of the master negotiator. "Deals are my art form. Other people paint beautifully or write poetry. I like making deals, preferably big deals," he wrote in 2014. But like the image itself, which is more the product of ghostwriters and reality TV producers than it is any actual business record, Trump's actual skill at negotiation is appallingly poor. He is very probably the worst deal-maker in the history of the American presidency.
Trump's latest negotiation faceplant came in Vietnam, where he sat down with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un ostensibly to reach some kind of arrangement about cutting back their nuclear program in return for easing up on sanctions. But after only two days, Trump abruptly walked out of the meeting, complaining that Kim's opening ask — full removal of sanctions in return for dismantling one nuclear installation — was too much.
Now, one must admit the failure to achieve a lasting peace settlement here is quite unfortunate, if unsurprising. Finally formally ending the Korean War, defusing some of the tension between North and South Korea, and alleviating some of the terrible material deprivation among North Koreans would have been a great achievement.
But Trump was never going to get it done himself. One likely problem is Trump's bone-deep ignorance and total lack of curiosity about anything other than himself. Diplomatic negotiation — particularly over a charged and complicated topic like nuclear weapons — takes extreme attention to detail. A lead negotiator needs both a whole battalion of experts and enough technical competence to be able to understand the parameters of debate. You may not have to understand the physics of uranium purification, but you must understand more-or-less what it means to have an enrichment centrifuge.
This is partly why presidents typically hand off such negotiations to professionals. President Obama didn't handle the Iran nuclear deal negotiations himself, he allowed then-Secretary of State John Kerry — who had vastly greater international experience — to take the lead. (This also diminished the polarizing effect Obama's personal presence would have had.)
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