The deal-making president: Statecraft and diplomacy the business way

It was at the turn of the 1990s when I pounced upon a newly published book, entitled Trump: The Art Of The Deal, at a college bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Sitting amid rows of dry academic texts, this gem of a book stood out to me, then a business doctoral student.

I bought the book immediately and was glued to it for days. The little book of anecdotes seemed to contain a wealth of information about business that was not taught in business school. I had a strange premonition then that the lessons from this seemingly trivial book might one day take the world by storm.

The spectacular intent to dump the Trans-Pacific Partnership was one of the first big salvos he fired, and it will not be the last.

And they have now, with the unexpected election of Mr Donald Trump, chairman and president of The Trump Organisation, as president of the world’s largest economy, the United States. As president-elect, Mr Trump has rapidly imprinted his wheeler-dealer style on the conduct of government business, including in his appointment of key business leaders to his core team.

The spectacular intent to dump the Trans-Pacific Partnership was one of the first big salvos he fired, and it will not be the last. Mr Trump has lamented that this trade pact is the worst of any deals for the US. It is a clear indication that any global matter will now be viewed not on a country-by-country or an issue-by-issue basis, but on a deal-by-deal basis with no place for principles.

Take as an example Mr Trump’s statement that the US’ “one China” policy is not a given but should be re-negotiated as a deal with concessions from China. He had earlier spoken to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen by telephone in a break with four decades of diplomatic protocol since Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979.

In any case, whether it is about handling the crises in Syria’s Aleppo or Iraq’s Mosul, Mr Trump will deploy a deal-making approach with local governments or rebels, as well as all other international and religion-oriented parties with a vested interest.

Even for companies, Mr Trump sees it fit that as soon-to-be president, he deals directly with them. The issues range from his gripe that Boeing is overcharging for the Air Force One programme to his call on American air-conditioner maker Carrier to keep jobs in the US. Indeed, Taiwanese firm Foxconn, the world’s largest contract manufacturer of Apple’s iPhone, is reportedly in discussion to invest on American soil. This followed a deal that its close affiliate, Japan’s SoftBank, struck with Mr Trump to invest some US$50 billion (S$72 billion) and create 50,000 new jobs in the US over the next four years.

New Deal

More significantly, Mr Trump has astounded the establishment and even the world by picking a cabinet laden with industry captains and business icons. Many of the appointees have spent years in mega corporations, large investment banks or funds – striking deals.

There will be less time for rhetoric but more push to get straight to work.

Call it the next New Deal if you will, but Mr Trump’s choices are in all likelihood not random. This savvy and suave Cabinet has been put together by design. Most importantly, they will exude a new way of getting things done, a new order of sorts that the rest of the world has to get used to if they want to transact with the US.

So with a business-laced team helmed by Mr Trump himself, we will expect more of the deal-making modus operandi. The stance of the incoming US administration will be hard-hitting and nail-biting. There will be less time for rhetoric but more push to get straight to work. As in many a business competing in the ever-turbulent environment, the US will likely be more agile, versatile and decisive, much akin to how business negotiations are often carried out. There will always be a singular objective, in the same way that the bottom line often grounds business deals.

The rules of the game may well be in for a change. The new way is not about position-taking but deal-making. It is not about stating whether there is or is not a policy change, but rather making sense of each unique situation and striking one deal at a time. Countries and corporations alike will have to play by these rules if they want to get the better of Mr Trump and company.

In this new world, it is not business as usual in statecraft and diplomacy but rather business as unusual. One thing is for sure, I will be re-reading my old book, Trump: The Art Of The Deal.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the views of NUS or NUS Business School. A version of this article first appeared in the Straits Times.

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