US President Donald Trump said he canceled a deal in the wake of a Taliban attack in Kabul that killed a US soldier. Meanwhile, Jason Greenblatt, Trump's special envoy for Middle East peace, is also leaving before the "Deal of the Century" is completed. The US is also ostensibly seeking a new Iran deal, and US-North Korea talks are stalled. Why is the US so addicted to the notion that so many of the world's problems can be solved with "deals" – especially given the track record of previous failed efforts?
Trump adds a personal dealmaking culture to US foreign policy, borrowed from his business background and a 1987 book that sang the praises of the "art of the deal." But his approach to deals is not unique. The US notion that conflicts can be solved with agreements – and deals that wrap them up with a nice start and end date – is part of historic Western European concepts of diplomacy.
Deals and treaties such as those at Westphalia or the Congress of Berlin sought to create order after conflicts in Europe. These ostensibly successful treaties or conferences are pointed to as examples of how diplomacy and international law can be successful. The US played a key role in ending the Russo-Japanese war in 1905 with a treaty signed at Portsmouth, for which Teddy Roosevelt won a Nobel Peace Prize.
But this approach to international affairs has its limits. In 1928 US Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg and France's Minister of Foreign Affairs Aristide Briand negotiated the Kellogg-Briand Pact signed by 15 countries, which was supposed to end war as a way to resolve disputes. In a sense, it outlawed war. Oddly, Germany, Japan and Italy all signed on. Within a decade those states would all be at war, with Italy invading Ethiopia and Japan increasing involvement in China.
The failures of 1928 haven't ended the seduction of treaties, conferences, pacts and deals to end conflict. The Paris Peace Accords in 1973 ended the war in Vietnam, just two years before North Vietnamese troops took over Saigon, which actually ended the war. In Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Oslo Accords were never fulfilled. UN resolutions that were supposed to stop Hezbollah maintaining a massive arsenal were never adhered to. Evidence seems to indicate that the last hundred years have seen a decline in adherence to treaties and deals, yet the US still believes it can get to the end zone in dealing with a variety of files.
The nature of modern open-ended conflicts that take place in ungoverned spaces, or through proxies and non-state actors, makes the ability to get a deal more complex. An entity like Hezbollah doesn't have to adhere to a "deal," and the Palestinian Authority can sign on to a "deal" while Hamas doesn't, allowing a kind of "good cop/bad cop" strategy. The Iranian regime can also sign on to a deal while parts of Iran, such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, pursue other agendas abroad.
Adversaries such as the Taliban see transparency in democracies as a kind of weakness.
Many countries and entities such as the Taliban seem to see the transparency in democratic countries as a kind of weakness. For instance, they can read in the US press about the Trump administration's challenges at home. They understand that Washington wants to be able to say it left Afghanistan with some kind of honorable deal. If, two years later, the Taliban march into Kabul, well at least there was a deal.
Sometimes the deal itself seems more important than adherence to it. UN Resolutions, with their formality and lip-service, allow those supporting them to point to them and say "see, we passed a resolution." Words have tended to be seen as more important than actions on the international level in recent decades, such as non-proliferation treaties, genocide conventions or even laws relating to refugees.
For instance, inaction during the Rwandan genocide showed a deeply cynical approach in the US and other countries, where policy-makers feared that defining the mass murder as genocide would force the US to actually "do something."
While Trump's notion of dealmaking comes from the world of business, the fundamentals have commonalities with past US deals, though they do appear a bit more transactional under the Trump administration.
The Taliban likely understand that although the US has been in Afghanistan for almost 18 years, it won't stay forever. They watch the US televised presidential debates; they understand that time is on their side. Similarly, Iran and the Palestinian leadership seem to think that if they just wait out the present US administration, they will get a better deal.
Trump's decision to seemingly cancel the Afghan deal is likely only a negotiating tactic.
This puts US dealmakers in a difficult position. When your adversaries know that your threats and blandishments come with a time caveat, they either won't trust you, or will wait you out. This isn't a football season where one has to show up at the games or forfeit. It's like an endless season where one team knows that the other team's coaches will be changed every few years.
Trump's decision to seemingly cancel the Afghan deal is likely only a negotiating tactic. The Taliban need to know that the US won't accept casualties as part of the deal. Time will tell whether other dealmaking projects the US is involved in will find their footing.
Seth Frantzman, a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), the op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.