President Trump has a deservedly bad rap with fan and foe alike for his propensity to make wild, off-the-cuff statements, especially on social media. How many of his supporters have wished aloud: Would this man please just stop tweeting already?!
But even if 95 percent of Trump's extemporaneous statements seem worthless or counterproductive, we’ve come to notice over time that most of those are quickly forgotten. Meanwhile, among the other 5 percent of his outbursts, some appear to be surprisingly effective.
Two recent events have brought this to our attention. The first was the manner in which Trump bludgeoned Canada into signing on to the new trade deal that he had negotiated with Mexico. In response to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s intransigence on certain thorny issues like dairy and pharmaceuticals, Trump applied pressure by rescinding Canadian exemptions from his metal tariffs. He even attacked Trudeau as “dishonest and weak” on Twitter.
That may seem stupid. But Trump then negotiated his promised new trade with his willing Mexican partners, and refused to meet with Trudeau. In the end, the Canadian leader had little choice but to sign, and on less favorable terms than he would have liked. It may seem unkind for a U.S. president to be so ruthless – even bullying, perhaps – with so close a friend and ally as Canada. More important (to us, anyway) is that Trump is simply wrong to treat trade restriction as some kind of asset rather than a voluntary burden on oneself.
[More: White House official called Trudeau 'that little punk kid running Canada']
But given that Trump does view trade in this way, one cannot but help admire the way in which he played hardball and got a deal that gives American farmers an inside track on exports to Canada. He leveraged his own reputation as a wild and unpredictable character – the sort who might even lock Canada out of the deal – to force Trudeau to weaken some of Canada's protectionist rules, and Trudeau is now being heavily criticized in Canada for giving in.
Trump again went on what looked like an embarrassing tirade this week against his Latin American neighbors. It began when a large caravan of 4,000 Honduran migrants loudly announced its northward trek from Honduras toward the U.S.
Trump reacted with all kinds threats – to bail out of the new trade agreement with Mexico, to cut off aid funding to Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, or even (as he put it on Twitter) “call up the U.S. Military and CLOSE OUR SOUTHERN BORDER!” unless the responsible governments stepped forward to prevent the caravan’s planned showdown with the U.S. Border Patrol.
How embarrassing for Americans. Except that it seems to have gotten the desired result. Rather than just let thousands of migrants through – the standard operating procedure for so many decades – Mexico’s government has sent two airplanes full of federales to their own southern border. It has also sent officials into Guatemala to warn marchers that they will be turned back at the border, and that there is no lawful passage into the United States either way.
Take this as another reminder that sometimes Trump's intemperate rhetoric is intended mostly for effect.
Some might argue that Trump is hurting America’s long-term relations by engaging in such ruthless tactics to bend other governments to his will. But this is where the real genius behind Trump's approach makes itself felt, whether he intends it or not. Trump will be out of power in six years at most, or perhaps in just two years. And given America’s indispensable role in the world, foreign leaders are not likely to hold anything Trump did against the next U.S. president.
But that new president will be able to enjoy the fruits of whatever concessions Trump obtained using his own wildness to negotiate. Whatever the drawbacks of having an unpredictable leader at the tiller, Americans should enjoy the advantages it brings as well.