To blunt trade wars, let Trump declare some victory

What is to be done about the looming trade war with China and the European Union?

President Donald Trump decides unilaterally to increase the tariffs on steel and aluminum, and the Chinese and EU say they will retaliate. Trump says he will respond in kind, and the trade war is on.

Who actually benefits from a trade war? Not the U.S., China or the EU.

To find a solution, one needs to understand the man. What is his goal? It is certainly not to make America great again because a trade war will not be good for our economy; already businesses throughout the country are feeling the impact, and it will only get worse.

But by observing his behavior, erratic as it has been, we see one consistency: The man needs to win — and he needs to win so badly that he will accept even the perception of winning.

So, knowing this, how should the international community deal with Trump? The answer lies in his recent attempts at “negotiation.”

Rule 1: Come on strong and look for any sign of weakness.

Rule 2: Claim success and then praise the “loser.”

Consider his meeting with North Korean president Kim Jong Un: First Trump belittled him as “little rocket man” and claimed to have a nuclear button bigger than Kim’s. Then he met with Kim and praised him for agreeing to denuclearize North Korea — an empty promise Kim had made to two presidents before Trump, and again made with no details, timetable or verification.

But somehow it was turned into a victory for Trump.

More recently, Trump attacked NATO as unnecessary, then got the NATO countries to agree to increase their military spending to 2 percent of their gross national product — which they’d actually agreed to before Trump was even president.

Once Trump could declare victory, then he could praise the NATO alliance and be seen as cooperating. So what is the international community to do about the trade war that Trump says will be good for the U.S.? Traditional negotiations do not appear to work. The alternative is to borrow a script from North Korea: Give Trump a perceived victory.

Other nations should tell Trump they will reduce their tariffs if he reduces the new tariffs that he has imposed. When it’s a question of winning, or even the appearance of winning, it may be worth the trade-off to beat Trump at his own game.

Negotiation often deals with details, but when dealing with a man unlikely to focus on details, perhaps the better choice is to opt for the bigger picture. To appeal to Trump’s ego, other nations must be willing to appear to lose a little face. But in so doing, a crisis may be averted.

Thomas R. Zentall is a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky.