Donald Trump at his home, Mar a Lago, talking with the author

Diplomacy in the Age of Trump 

Donald Trump may be the most important figure in American history journalists despise but can’t understand. Sun Tzu, the Chinese general and author of The Art of War, wouldn't have it any other way.

“Everyone sees tactics, but only Generals see strategy.” — Sun Tzu

As the world's foremost military strategist, Sun Tzu can be helpful in evaluating the very quality that baffles the media: Trump is a gamesman. It is a venerable talent practiced for centuries on the battlefield as well as blackjack tables, treaty rooms, and the Oval Office.


As an observer and occasional confidante of Trump’s, I wouldn’t second guess the media if they didn’t consistently underestimate him.

This is a massive problem for people like me whose life’s work is devoted to global leadership. We are highly skeptical of political propaganda that passes for news coverage today and we want real answers to why Trump goes out of his way to annoy the president of a friendly neighbor? Why does he suggest the media fakes the news? Why does he think America is going to be great again? If you are a globalist but don’t know how to read Trump, your compass may get stuck in the wrong direction as you try to figure these things out. That is the challenge I am addressing in this column.

To be fair, Trump’s rhetoric gets a share of the blame. Media bias and the impact of social media pushing people into the end zone of their political sympathies get the rest. Convene a focus group of two, a Texan in the same room as a New Yorker, and one shouts “MAGA” while the other shrugs, “he’s not my president.” In reality, as I hope to show, we should be looking at Trump as a very complicated president, more poker player than politician.

In full disclosure, if you are a strategy freak like me, you also get a kick out of trying to figure him out.

(This article is part of a Thunderbird School of Global Management series on the future of internationalism.)

Before he became a reality TV star and the President of the most powerful country in the world, Trump was rebuilding his real estate empire after a nasty recession in the early 90s. I was Publisher of Forbes Magazine, that arbiter of the nation’s wealth. We attended football matches together, dined on my company yacht, and I would fly chief executives of major companies to his parties at Mar a Lago, his Palm Beach home (a 1997 New Yorker profile nicely captures it).

What did I observe during those occasions? Titans of the universe making nasty comments about Trump before he arrived; then, as he entered the room he turns on the charm, flatters and acknowledges their great achievements, places a great big bear hug around their shoulders, winking at me as he closed deal after deal with those who made the fatal mistake of underestimating him.

In Trump’s world, you are either a friend or an opponent, and his playbook is apparent to anyone willing to watch objectively from the sidelines.

The Bluff 

"Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak." — Sun Tzu

In 1997, Trump called me looking for a sit down with Forbes to talk about our upcoming Forbes 400 Richest Americans issue. His big move was to secure a spot on the list. It would silence critics who claimed he didn’t have the financial stake to compete. A few weeks later he was at the Forbes townhouse sitting on the living room couch and starting things off by telling the editors how rich he was. He hit them with his favorite gambit, making a stratospheric claim — that his wealth was north of $3 billion.

This was about the time the journalists lost the battle. 

The editors clearly weren’t biting. They are a skeptical lot by nature, and it was undeniable, how could he have dug himself out of the hole in such a short time since declaring business bankruptcy? But he said it was so and PriceWaterhouseCoopers backed him up. Editors hate to be wrong a lot more than they enjoy being partially right, so they hedged and gave his net worth a huge haircut. That’ll show him

But they put him on the Forbes 400.

What they did not know is that Trump cared only that he was on the list. It meant he could parlay that single fact into a sterling balance sheet and he moved swiftly to buy trophy properties in a down market. Soon he was back, larger than life, richer than ever, plotting his next big move. We now know what it was. 

Bluff with bravado, incredible timing and audacity, and voila, you have the art of the comeback.

The ‘Tell’ 

With Trump, his reflex for diagnosing his opponent’s state of mind during a negotiation is as deft as a surgeon feeling your pulse. 

Trump can read your personal balance sheet, what you need to win, what makes you happy or sad or popular or humiliated, and knows these things before you do.

If you ever go mano a mano with Trump, keep an eye on the “tell.” In practical terms, pay attention to his actions and who he deploys to get things done, not necessarily his pronouncements. 

To use an old fishing expression, Trumps throws a lot of chum in the water. We have all witnessed him saying one thing and doing another, or his people will do yet a different thing before he says something else. It can seem very confusing and the media calls it “chaos.” To me, it’s just code for keeping your opponent off balance, and the code breaker is Sun Tzu:

“The general is skillful in attack whose opponent does not know what to defend, and he is skillful in defense whose opponent does not know what to attack.” 

Head Games

President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico could have simply ignored Trump. 

Instead, he let him get under his skin with the comment “‘they will pay for the border wall.” Now Nieto faces a difficult set of outcomes: capitulation, which is political suicide, or an economic enemy in America, which is unacceptable. 

How did this impressive young politician and leader of such a great country find himself playing ‘rope a dope’ with an untested American president? This favorite Trump gambit is, again, right out of Sun Tzu:

If your opponent is temperamental, irritate him. Then build him a golden bridge to retreat across.”

Nieto will play for time most likely because he is on an uncomfortable ledge. He is practically imploring Trump to offer Mexico a way back and Trump, of course, knows this. There will be a solution and it will have two terms, America will look like a winner but in a way that makes sense for both countries. That’s how a dealmaker thinks. Your first move is just an opening feint, but your opponent mistakes it for war and overreacts. 

If you find this too crazy to imagine, you haven’t followed Trump’s life story. Read how Trump the minor developer became Trump the superhero while launching his reputation and restoring a historic landmark in New York’s Central Park at a time the city was falling apart, and his relationship with New York’s powerful Mayor Koch was frosty as the Wollman Ice Rink.

Trump L’oeil 

There is an old George Burns routine, “it’s too bad the folks who really understand what the country needs are too busy cutting hair and driving taxis to do anything about it.”

If Trump seems bipolar at times, it is a job requirement. He has to make peace short term with the populist urges that propelled him into office like George Burns' barbers and cab drivers, only now it's factory workers in Saginaw and murder rates in Chicago. But he also has to conjure up some very adept long-term moves that will help him run the most powerful country in the world. This is pure cognitive dissonance and, to make it work, Trump needs to pull off a visual illusion worthy of Houdini. 

For those not schooled in American history, Trump’s populism, some call it America First nationalism, is a very old Democrat tune. FDR turned it into his campaign theme in 1932: “These unhappy times call for the building of plans that…put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.” It took the start of WWII to get us worrying again about the rest of the world. 

While the populist sentiment is very important to Trump’s American heartland voters, it is of much lesser consequence than the other mandate, which also has a two-year time stamp. It is the Miracle-Gro for our economy and is the reason I am optimistic that under Trump, America will become more global and more outwardly focused. 

The Scorecard

What gets you into office doesn’t keep you there, as politicians find out to their — but no one else’s — surprise. 

Trump knows the metric on which he will be judged, and the one he judges himself on, will be growth and that means firing up global trade, no matter what anyone calls it.

But he can’t do it like the establishment elites that came before. He owes his constituents the pleasure of demeaning the treaties and trade agreements and punching a few of the key partners in the nose. After which he will have the political cover and the leverage to launch a robust, if stealth, internationalism, one that can propel us in a way that is transformative. That is my thesis based on watching Trump over the years, recognizing at heart he is a centrist (and a former Democrat), an ardent businessman who uses common sense as his litmus test.

But with an economy as big as ours, he faces the same choice as Warren Buffett does in growing a company as large as Berkshire Hathaway. Buffett says he has to go ‘elephant hunting’ to find growth because nothing less moves the needle. 

So who are America’s elephants? 

The Trump Doctrine

“In the midst of chaos there is opportunity.” ― Sun Tzu

The elephants in the room are America’s global trading partners whose economies are growing, in particular, China and India, then Brazil and Mexico, and finally, Africa and the Middle East. There is one wild card; it has Vladimir Putin’s face on it. Since stability is a key factor in the plan, Russia will play a central role, particularly with Iran and Syria. Trump's timing seems to be put out the fires first on the domestic front, get the spoilers under control, the Middle East and North Korea, then start the engines. 

The cornerstone of the global pivot is to get all the big, rich friends we can. Tell them to show us respect, and yes, pay their fair share. But we can’t afford the luxury of too many enemies, economic or otherwise, as the past few decades have proved. These are great, complex global geopolitical issues that dance around the mind of this President. I believe he will sort the things we can win from the things that are hard if not impossible to do in a four-year term. He is a builder first and foremost, and he knows his ambition will be carefully disciplined by time and budget. 

Driving higher and broader global growth is the only choice Trump has if he is to grow a nearly $20 trillion economy. Global commerce buys him the kind of recovery that even journalists would be inclined to applaud. But it has to happen soon. Which is why you are likely to see him jumpstart things just as soon as the final terms are set by the great negotiator.

Metternich called it the "balance of power" and the same I believe will be said of the "Trump Doctrine," only I suspect it will be tilted slightly in America's favor. 


Author’s Bio

Jeff Cunningham is an advocate for enlightened global leadership, which he calls the most valuable natural resource in the world.

He is a Professor at ASU’s Thunderbird School of Global Management and was the former publisher of Forbes Magazine, an internet CEO and venture capital partner.

He travels the globe in search of iconic leaders. As an interviewer/host, he created a YouTube interview series, Iconic Voices, now co-produced by @Thunderbird, featuring mega moguls from Warren Buffett to Jeff Immelt. His articles have been published by the Arizona Republic and are posted to LinkedIn, Medium, and

His career experience includes publisher of Forbes Magazine; founder of Directorship Magazine; CEO of Zip2 (founded by Elon Musk),, and; venture partner with Schroders. He serves as a trustee of the McCain Institute and previously as a trustee of CSIS and Middle East Institute, and as an advisor to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee.

He has also been a board director of 10 public companies.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Thunderbird School of Global Management or Arizona State University as a whole.