‘Money Heist’, the hit series from Spain, tells the story of a well-coordinated hijacking and robbery of a Madrid mint, in which the thieves use the negotiation process for hostage release to buy enough time to print millions worth of unmarked bills for their own use after escape.
At one point, the thieves embarrass the police by releasing a recording of a compromised bargaining process involving a politically connected hostage. The fallout weighs heavily upon the lead negotiator. “I care about what my mother and daughter think of me”, she laments to a cynical colleague. He advises: “When this part is over, nobody will remember it… if you finally get them a happy ending, you’ll be the country’s hero.”
This fictional Spanish agent’s reminder to see the forest for the trees should not be lost on observers of American politics today: be they fans of President Donald Trump or detractors. Now, almost three-quarters of the way through his first term as president, none of his fortunes or misfortunes - whether they appear as glorious victories or abysmal failures - are etched in stone. They can all still be reversed dramatically over the coming 12 months before the election homestretch.
Naturally, many such issues cannot be controlled by any president, no matter how rhetorically skilled or disciplined. Business cycles, wages, house prices, and other bread and butter economic realities depend on much more than an administration’s policy decisions. But when it comes to international diplomacy, a president is more able to affect direct outcomes which the voting public can quantify and assess. And because foreign policy often centres around conflict, it captures a large share of the public’s attention, leading to an oversize impact on the opinions of undecided voters.
In the case of Trump, his unorthodox approach to foreign policy further amplifies the risks and potentially the rewards. Not only does he prefer a highly personal, relationship-based style of diplomacy, but more significantly, his use of Twitter to announce his positions (or fickle reversals of them) removes layers of staff and confounds traditional State Department bureaucracy. While this mercurial behaviour increases his diplomatic agility, it is also a double-edged sword that could make Trump invincible as easily as it could mercilessly slay him.
Take the North Korea case, for instance. On the occasion of the first surprise summit of Trump with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong-Un, in Singapore in June of last year, the president’s critics treated it as “sour grapes”, unwilling to give credit for arranging the first-ever head-to-head meeting between US and North Korean heads of state. On the other hand, Trump’s supporters predictably took an early victory lap, only to appear foolish after further rounds of direct negotiation failed and provocations continued. It is anyone’s guess as to the likelihood of a third summit occurring or even succeeding, but the point is this: Trump’s high-stakes diplomacy with North Korea is a work in progress. The mature political observer should not render judgement until all the chips fall over the coming year.
For an even better example of the peaks and troughs along the way that could eventually be forgotten, consider relations with Iran. From the beginning of his presidential campaign, Trump lambasted the Obama administration’s Iranian nuclear deal. “John Kerry never walked away from the table”, he repeatedly rebuked, as if his predecessor’s style of negotiation itself offended his hard-edged, New York real estate instincts, regardless of the outcome. Trump rode this horse to success in the 2016 primary. As a political strategist, I kept hoping for some dramatic moment when one of the other 11 Republicans in the field would buck the trend and succumb to the obvious logic that Iranian scientists had acquired the knowledge to make a bomb and therefore ending the 36-year stalemate made much more sense than another decade of bellicose rhetoric. But alas, Trump made political mincemeat of that spineless lot.
Since taking office, Trump has doubled down on his opposition to the Iran deal - and then some. He put the treaty in the shredder; sanctions were re-imposed and strengthened while pressure was brought to bear on allies in the hopes of crippling the Iranian economy. A dangerous game of brinksmanship is playing out in the Persian Gulf, championed by warmongering neo-conservatives like John Bolton (who was somehow recycled from the Bush-era “swamp”). In June, the downing of a US spy drone would have caused a military strike inside Iranian territory that could have ignited a full-scale war in the region had Trump not called it off at the last minute.
The disposition of the current administration puts the war-weary on edge, and rightfully so. Americans have heard the beating of war drums before and have been conditioned to expect certain outcomes. But Trump’s style does not necessarily fit within that paradigm. Unlike his predecessors in the Oval Office, his approach allows him the option to quickly reverse course over the coming year and sue for peace. He hinted as much at last month’s G7 summit when he floated the idea of meeting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani face-to-face. Just yesterday, he fired the hawkish Bolton. A dramatic 180-degree turn is always just a tweet away.
What Trump will do with respect to North Korea, China, Venezuela or Iran, or a whole host of other topics remains to be seen. The final score on each match has not been recorded. As he enflames our passions with outrageous tweets from day to day, we should all - as political observers - check our emotions and learn to play Trump’s “long game”: evaluate the bigger picture, remembering the advice from 'Money Heist': “If you finally get them a happy ending, you’ll be the country’s hero… but if it ends up in a long string of dead people, we'll all be screwed.”
George Ajjan is an international political strategist.
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