NEW YORK—In a steamy hotel ballroom stuffed with reporters from all over the world, at the end of a contentious visit to the United Nations, Donald Trump delivered a globe-spanning seminar on his approach to high-stakes deal making—involving nothing less than the specter of nuclear war, the future of free trade, and the trajectory of relations between the world’s two superpowers. Wednesday’s press conference itself was a spectacle, as the president veered from holding forth on Canadian dairy tariffs to musing about George Washington’s possibly “bad past.” But Trump was consistent in assessing his performance on the world stage.
And his review was positively glowing. His overriding message was that if you’re brutal and uncompromising, at least at first, to friends and foes alike, you will eventually get your way one way or another. Their pain will be America’s gain.
Take Trump’s signature issue of trade. The president argued that tariffs and trade wars were proving highly successful in forcing countries to respect America again—a stark contrast to what UN Secretary-General António Guterres had told me just ahead of this week’s General Assembly: that these trade conflicts were sapping America of its “soft power.”
Japan wasn’t “willing for years to talk trade, and now they’re willing to talk trade,” Trump boasted, going on to cite his recently renegotiated trade deal with South Korea as further vindication of his approach. He expected China to follow suit, even though the Chinese government has shown no sign so far of backing down from the two countries’ multibillion-dollar trade war. Pointing to a recent television appearance by the China expert Michael Pillsbury, Trump noted that Pillsbury “was saying that China has total respect for Donald Trump and for Donald Trump’s very, very large brain.”
More critical than trade barriers, in Trump’s telling, were the singular intellect and negotiating skills of the man who enacted them. “A normal, regular political person that has no concept of what the hell he’s doing would let China continue to take $500 billion a year out of our country and rebuild their country,” he observed. (That figure is roughly the cost of Chinese imported goods to the United States.) But thankfully, this was no normal, regular president. He mentioned how he’d pressed Japan’s Shinzo Abe to fully reimburse the United States for helping defend his country—something Trump has been arguing for since the 1980s. “I was saying things that nobody in the room even understood, and I said them a long time ago, and I was right,” Trump recalled of his meeting earlier in the day with Abe. He urged the assembled journalists to watch a Fox News interview in which South Korean President Moon Jae In had praised Trump’s handling of nuclear talks with North Korea. “I can’t say [what Moon said], because you would say I’m braggadocious,” he explained. Then he proceeded to say it: “What he said about me last night was an unbelievable thing: ‘Couldn’t have happened without President Trump … and nobody else could do it.’”
Rather than focusing on the steps North Korea has taken toward giving up its nuclear weapons—so far small, but not insignificant—Trump measured his success against the prospect of a catastrophic war on the Korean peninsula. And it’s true that, compared with this outcome, nearly a year without North Korean missile or nuclear tests is a positive development. But he ascribed the risk of such conflict to Barack Obama, while ignoring his own role in escalating that risk last year with serious planning for military strikes and threats of nuclear annihilation. These he downplayed as “rhetorical contests” with Kim Jong Un that they now “laugh” about.
It was all part of the deal making. Sure, he threatened to “totally destroy” the nation of North Korea at the UN General Assembly a year ago, which he now observed “was a little bit rough.” But the press had missed the strategy behind it all, he implied. “‘Oh, Trump is saying these horrible things. He’s going to get us into a war,’” Trump said in mockery of his critics. “If I wasn’t elected, you’d be in war … You know how close [Obama] was to pressing the trigger for war? Millions of people” would have died. There is no public indication that Obama was close to war with North Korea.
You had to be just as rough with allies to soften them up, Trump argued. Yes, he’d rejected a request to meet with the leader of a longtime American partner, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, during this year’s UN General Assembly. But that was because Canada’s “tariffs [on U.S. goods] are too high,” and Trudeau would at some point see the error of his ways. “Canada will come along,” Trump said. “Now, if Canada doesn’t make a deal with us, we’re going to make a much better deal. We’re going to tax the cars that come in. We will put billions and billions of dollars into our Treasury. And frankly, we’ll be very happy because it’s actually more money than you can make under any circumstance with making a deal.”
And yes, the United States had appeared isolated from its European allies and other world powers at the United Nations over its withdrawal from the multinational Iran nuclear deal. But it “doesn’t matter what world leaders think on Iran,” Trump asserted. “Iran’s going to come back to me, and they’re going to make a good deal, I think. Maybe not. Deals, you never know. But they’re suffering greatly” from reimposed sanctions. (At a press conference earlier in the day, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had drawn the opposite conclusion, predicting that the United States would “sooner or later … come back” to the Iran deal.)
In fact, the suffering—whether in China and Canada from tariffs, or in Iran and North Korea from sanctions and threats of military force—was the very point. Trump suggested that the pain these countries are enduring demonstrates that his policies are working. The Iranians “have rampant inflation,” Trump observed. “Their money is worthless. Everything is going wrong. They have riots in the street. You can’t buy bread. You can’t do anything. It’s a disaster … At some point … they’re going to say, ‘Hey, can we do something?’” He applied a similar calculus to trade: China is “having big problems” economically, Trump noted. “I don’t want them to have problems, but they have to make a fair deal, just like Canada has to make a fair deal.”
It’s an apt approach for a man who tends to characterize countries as neither adversaries nor allies but ruthless, self-interested actors whose gains come at America’s loss. In such a rough-and-tumble world, the United States must be just as ruthless and self-interested. “I love Canada … I have so many friends” there, Trump said at one point. “But that has nothing to do with this; I’m representing the United States,” and Canada has treated American farmers “very badly.” As for China, “Everything’s always been, for 20 years, ‘Oh, China is so great’ … I love China. I think they’re great. But you don’t hear that so much anymore. You know who’s great now? We’re great now.”
Trump, of course, hasn’t yet secured a better nuclear deal with Iran, let alone with North Korea. His trade war with China rages on and his neighbor to the north hasn’t caved on tariffs. But he and Kim have stepped back from the brink of war, and South Korea and other countries such as Japan and Mexico are finding ways to accommodate Trump’s demands on trade, if not in their entirety. And it may take a while to determine whether deals as breathtakingly ambitious as the ones the president seeks have succeeded or failed. Trump, after all, is aiming for the full denuclearization of a nuclear-armed North Korea, an agreement that not only stops Iran’s nuclear-weapons ambitions but also its support of terrorism and its meddling in the Middle East, an overhaul of China’s model of economic development, and a renaissance of American manufacturing. Regardless, he’s happy to declare victory (see: “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea”) with or without its actual realization.
As for the unfinished business, Donald Trump seemed supremely confident on Wednesday, after days of sparring with world leaders in New York, that while he may have thoroughly scrambled international affairs at the moment, it would ultimately all resolve in America’s favor.