President Franklin Roosevelt had his “New Deal” and Harry Truman his “Fair Deal,” both of which were anchored in philosophical ideas about American domestic and economic policy. As we near the end of two years of Trump’s presidency, it seems fair to characterize his non-philosophical approach to governing as a continuous search for a “better deal.”
What underlies President Trump’s policy toward one of America’s most dangerous enemies abroad, Iran, for example? It continues to be based on his campaign observation that the nuclear agreement struck with Iran was “a disastrous deal.” His approach does not derive from any international grand strategy or understanding of the role Iran plays in the world. It is simply a bad deal, and we need to get out of it, presumably to work toward some unspecified better deal.
An even more obvious application of Trump’s “better deal” philosophy has been his approach to tariffs. Republicans have long argued for free trade and no tariffs, so Trump was off the script when he began blowing up trade agreements—first the TPP and then NAFTA—and imposing tariffs on friends and enemies alike. But as this has played out, it turns out that he is not so much interested in tariffs as he is in using tariffs to negotiate better deals, one nation or region at a time: Mexico, Canada, the European Union and soon others. Of course, the negotiating may stop at the Chinese border, and isolating China economically may be the end game for his tariff negotiations.
To negotiate better deals, of course, one must first undo existing deals, and that is where Trump the disruptor is unlike any president we have seen. He proclaimed the Paris climate change pact “an agreement that disadvantages the United States to the benefit of other countries” and poof, we were gone in a flash. The Iran nuclear deal, involving seven countries over two years of negotiations, was declared by Trump a “horrible, one-sided deal that should never, ever have been made” as he led America out the door. In one of his first actions as president, he pulled out of the Trans Pacific Partnership and famously declared NAFTA “the worst trade deal” ever entered into by the U.S. He told our allies “NATO is as bad as NAFTA,” leaving them to wonder whether we would even withdraw from that defense pact. Trump’s recent declaration that he wanted to pull out of the INF nuclear deal with Russia seems to be following this same disruptor path.
Does a president have the constitutional power to withdraw from international agreements? The Constitution gives the president the power to enter into treaties with the consent of two-thirds of the Senate, but it is silent on the question of where the power resides to withdraw from treaties. When Congress approves trade agreements, it has never explicitly given the president power to undo them. On one hand, Congress clearly has the power to “regulate commerce,” but Congress has been yielding its powers to the president on a whole list of things, including its war powers, for decades. It would be an interesting constitutional question, but with the presidency in the ascendancy and Congress in decline, such a difficult question might not even be raised.
Then remains the ultimate question: Can Trump not only undo bad deals but also make “better deals?” That is the question by which Trump’s foreign policy may ultimately be judged. Bilateral negotiations on tariffs may be easier to accomplish, though the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement is not being hailed as an unqualified success. But any new deals involving NATO or Iran or Russia on matters of national defense and nuclear weapons are far more complex and require a patient, long-term diplomatic approach that the Trump administration has not yet demonstrated.
So far, the author of The Art of the Deal is largely in search of a series of “better deals” for America. It seems clear that Trump is willing and able to undo deals, but less clear whether he can bring about better ones.
David Davenport is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.