Analysis & Opinions - Bloomberg Opinion

Trump Can't Solve North Korea by Just Making a Deal

| Sep. 05, 2017

Transactionalism may work in business, but it won't get the U.S. out of its foreign-policy jams.

President Donald J. Trump’s tweet this weekend that the U.S. might terminate all trade with countries doing business with North Korea was widely derided on the grounds of realism. Given that 90 percent of North Korea’s trade is with China, the tweet was little more than a veiled threat to terminate all U.S. trade with Beijing, ending a bilateral trade relationship valued at $650 billion a year. It would, as many correctly pointed out, mean economic disaster for North Korea -- and also for the U.S.

The “realism” argument -- as well as its companion criticism that such statements call into question U.S. credibility -- is well founded. But my bigger issue with the president’s tweet lies elsewhere. Trump's threat -- particularly when viewed alongside his reported preparation to withdraw from the free trade agreement with South Korea -- shows that he is willing and inclined to take on would-be allies in the hopes that the pressure he creates will force them to address a common problem on his terms.

By threatening to curtail U.S. trade with South Korea and China, Trump seems to be trying to create some leverage, some bargaining power, over Beijing and Seoul that he can then use to get them to be tougher on North Korea. As he said back in April on "Face the Nation": “I think that, frankly, North Korea is maybe more important than trade.” He also mused that securing China’s help in dealing with North Korea could be “worth making not as good a trade deal for the United States.”

We have known for some time that the president views all negotiations through such a transactional lens. And perhaps, in some circumstance, such a transactional approach can bear fruit in the realm of foreign policy, although I am hard pressed to point to one. Some U.S. administrations have tried to deal with Russia in this way; Moscow generally saw any concession as a sign of weakness, rather than as part of an explicit bargain.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: O'Sullivan, Meghan.“Trump Can't Solve North Korea by Just Making a Deal.” Bloomberg Opinion, September 5, 2017.