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The Benefits and Risks of Trump’s Dazzle

Walter Russell Mead

If nothing else, President Trump’s Korea policy has been a master class in trolling. For months, talk of “maximum pressure” and “all options are on the table” had foreign-policy experts on fainting couches over the prospect of imminent nuclear war. Then Mr. Trump announced the summit with Kim Jong Un and the establishment turned on a dime, solemnly warning that a mindlessly dovish president would give away the store.

Then Mr. Trump canceled the summit. This was an amateur move, critics sniffed; the flailing of a dilettante out of his depth. But when Mr. Kim reasserted his desire for a summit at a hastily arranged meeting with South Korean president Moon Jae-in, the meeting was on again, prompting Mr. Trump’s if-he’s-for-it-I’m-against-it critics, somewhat wearily, to work up their latest scathing indictment of the president. At press time the “Lucky Dancing Monkey” theory seems to be winning: Mr. Trump has no more sense of strategy or direction than a primitive simian; sooner or later his luck will run out.

From Mr. Trump’s point of view, this back-and-forth has so far been a success. His maneuvering has kept both Mr. Moon and Mr. Kim off balance, made his critics look unprincipled and shortsighted, and kept the global public fascinated with the Trump Presidency, the greatest reality-television show in history. Mr. Trump argued in “The Art of the Deal” that negotiations should be pursued opportunistically through surprise, misdirection, publicity and improvisation. For him, a sudden willingness both to walk away and to return to the table is a basic tool of the trade.

Expect more of the same as the administration turns increasingly to Iran. One possible surprise: As with North Korea, Mr. Trump may be more open to a meeting with the supreme leader than most hawks would like. As Mr. Trump put it in the business manual that made his name: “Suddenly it dawned on me why my deals kept coming apart: if you’re going to make a deal of any significance, you have to go to the top. . . . Everyone underneath the top guy in a company is just an employee.”

Whether the subject is North Korea, Iran, the North American Free Trade Agreement or tariffs, the razzle-dazzle diplomacy of feints, tweets and rants is likely to continue. And while Mr. Trump is not wrong to experiment with unconventional diplomatic strategies, he—and we—may find that this approach carries some unexpected risks.

The president’s chaotic negotiating style seeks to pressure opponents to settle by creating uncertainty while concealing his own intentions. This aligns with his political style, which aims to keep the public enthralled through drama and suspense. He also believes in flooding the zone. While other presidents might avoid simultaneous fights with Europe over the Paris climate accord, steel and auto tariffs, and Iran policy, Mr. Trump believes that the more issues are in play, the better chance he has of making good deals.

Perhaps. But the steady increase in U.S.-generated tensions and uncertainties over trade and security could also produce bad or even catastrophic outcomes as they interact with the economic and political risks that have been steadily accumulating across the globe.

A decade of ultralow interest rates in the developed world sent hundreds of billions of dollars into emerging markets in search of higher yields. That money is coming home now, and from Turkey to Argentina there are warning signs of financial crises. Meanwhile, the prospect of trade wars has the potential to disrupt global supply chains, slow investment, and create more uncertainty in the financial system. The political turmoil in Italy suggests that another round of European monetary instability may be on the way. And geopolitical unrest—from Korea to Syria, from Yemen to Ukraine and possibly to Venezuela—could easily interact with economic turmoil to produce large and unpleasant surprises in financial markets.

It is one thing to unleash the power of creative chaos to help the U.S. negotiate better deals. But a good chef needs to know when to turn the heat down. The basis of Mr. Trump’s rising popularity and the GOP’s slowly improving midterm prospects is the strong domestic economy. International financial and political turmoil is the biggest threat to this achievement. The Trump administration needs to ensure that its diplomatic strategy supports its economic goals rather than endangering them.

There is another lesson in “The Art of the Deal” to which Mr. Trump may need to return: “Sometimes—not often, but sometimes—less is more.”

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