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The Border Wall Is a Negotiating Tactic Straight Out of 'The Art of the Deal'

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Eric Schultz

On Jan. 25, representatives of Mexico’s government arrived in Washington to meet with White House officials. The purpose: preliminary discussions ahead of talks between Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto and new US president Donald Trump, who are scheduled to meet on Jan. 31 to discuss NAFTA, immigration, and border security.

It’s expected to be a contentious discussion. And even before the Mexican delegation landed, Trump undermined their negotiating position.

With a single tweet, Trump ratcheted up the already high stakes for Peña Nieto in renegotiating his country’s most important international relationship. The Mexican peso plunged (though it’s since more than recovered) and Mexicans had a fit, some even demanding that their president cancel the trip in response to the Trumpian affront.

The timing perhaps was coincidental. But reading the wall announcement as a tactic for revamping what Trump has repeatedly characterized as a lousy deal with Mexico is not completely preposterous. After all, Trump himself has argued that one of his top qualifications to be president is his ability to make great deals.

Indeed, on the topic of Mexico, he seems to be ripping whole pages out of his own deal-making playbook, The Art of the Deal.

We examined the different negotiating tips Trump outlined in his 1987 co-authored bestseller and the Mexico policy he has articulated thus far. In some cases, Trump seems to be applying his own advice to the letter; we discuss those strategies first. In other cases, it would do him well to revisit the tactics he claims made him such a huge business success. A few other tips don’t directly translate to the world of international diplomacy, so those we skipped.

It’s a decidedly simplistic thought experiment. Still, it might be more enlightening than parsing Trump’s declarations through the lens of international law and diplomatic conventions—so far, that strategy has mostly resulted in bafflement and outrage on both sides of the border. So let’s see how things stack up against Trump’s own advice for negotiating Trump-style.

Think big

Trump’s envisioning of a border wall certainly started out big: a roughly 2,000-mile long, fortified concrete barrier stretching through some swaths of nearly impenetrable terrain. It even grew throughout the campaign, as he pledged not only to build the wall but to make Mexico pay for it. As president-elect, Trump suggested he would scale down the project, with fencing perhaps acceptable in some areas in place of an actual wall. Still, the concept of the wall remains enormous in both its aspiration to seal one of the world’s most heavily transited borders and in its power to offend.

Maximize the options

Several people, including Trump, have noted his tendency to give himself a lot of leeway in order to get to where he wants to be in a negotiation. By that logic, it makes perfect sense that he would sign an executive order calling for the wall’s construction while effusively praising Peña Nieto.

“I keep a lot of balls in the air, because most deals fall out, no matter how promising they seem at first,” Trump said in The Art of the Deal.

Author Michael D’Antonio, who spent hours with Trump while researching his book The Truth about Trumptold NPR that Trump is intentionally vague. “It’s very consistent with who he is to say something really general —I’m going to build a fantastic building, and it’s going to be a terrific golf course—and then the details are for another day and can always be interpreted as fulfilling the initial promise. And there’s a bit of genius in this,” he said.

The wall is a case in point. It went from 65-feet tall at one point to fencing in some areas more recently. He’s still calling it a wall.

Use your leverage

Trump is certainly milking the U.S.’s leverage over Mexico, aiming for the areas where it most hurts. In value, Mexican exports amounted to 37% of the country’s GDP in 2015. They would take a big hit if Trump walked away from NAFTA, or implemented border taxes. Remittances from immigrants abroad, which he has threatened to tax, surpass revenues from Mexico’s oil industry.

Get the word out

Trump sees publicity as a key tool to drive a deal. From the book: “One thing I’ve learned about the press is that they’re always hungry for a good story, and the more sensational the better… if you are a little different, a little outrageous, or if you do things that are bold or controversial, the press is going to write about you.”

The border wall hits all of those marks: A little different, yes. Outrageous, yes. Bold, controversial, yes, yes.

Fight back

So far Mexico hasn’t provided much to fight back on, and it might be a sound approach. “When people treat me badly or unfairly or try to take advantage of me, my general attitude, all my life, has been to fight back very hard,” he wrote in The Art of the Deal.

One commentator, in an opinion piece on news site Animal Político, suggests a strategy Mexico might take to get around Trump’s self-avowed vindictiveness:

What is important is that the Mexican government understand exactly what is essential for the Trump administration (beyond the craziness and the rhetoric) and let them win some public relation battles—which we know are so important for the White House’s new tenant.

Deliver the goods

Trump, at least back when his book was written, conceded that all the “excitement,” “wonderful promotion,” and “hyperbole” the negotiator builds to close a deal has to ultimately turn into something concrete. “If you don’t deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on,” he says.

These days, he doesn’t seem to be following through on that point. He might deliver on the wall, if not at the promised scale. But will he deliver the best possible deal for the US overall?

That begs a question he has yet to address: What constitutes the best deal for the US? Is it simply to have more factories and fewer undocumented immigrants? What about keeping products Americans buy every day affordable, and American companies competitive—two goals that NAFTA helps the US achieve?

His focus on areas in which he feels the US has lost out to Mexico, such as manufacturing jobs, overlooks other key aspects of the bilateral relation. Therein lies a key problem of acting like a real-estate mogul when the job calls for statesmanship. Will Americans feel like they got the best deal when the number of Mexican immigrants entering the US illegally swells again because of the Trump-inflicted losses to the Mexican economy? Past experience shows that even in the face of barriers, people will find a way to get through if they’re desperate enough.

Contain the costs, protect the downside

If Trump were to follow that advice, he would be looking at ways to avoid incurring the kind of costs outlined above. How will national security-related expenses rise if Mexico becomes a political and economic basket case? How many jobs would be lost if American companies didn’t have access to cheap labor south of the border, or even within the US itself from undocumented workers? During an address at the US Department of Homeland Security on Jan. 25, Trump said he believes Mexico’s economic stability is important to the US, but so far he’s proposed no policies to bolster it.

Have fun

In his book, Trump describes dealmaking as a competitive sport in which money serves as a mere score keeper. It would be flip to suggest that the new president ran for office for the sake of fun. But his remarks during and after the campaign indicate that he similarly sees international relations, trade in particular, as a zero-sum game. “We will do much better,” he said during one campaign debate. “The United States loses with everybody.” He clearly articulated this attitude in his inauguration speech with the motto “America First.”

More recently, though, he’s talked about the overhaul of US-Mexico relations as a win-win arrangement—even as he continues to dial up the hostility. (Among the new measures he enacted via executive order on Jan. 25, for example, is the weekly publication of all crimes committed by undocumented aliens—a policy that would likely fan anti-immigrant sentiment.)

Hopefully for people on either side of the border, the more balanced and pragmatic approach will prevail in the end.

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