The Art of the Threat

Rash, attention-getting threats may be U.S. president Donald Trump’s favorite negotiating tactic, but they have led to unmet goals and mistrust. To succeed, threats need to be delivered rarely and judiciously.

By PON Staffon / Negotiation Skills

What do you do when the other party won’t give you what you want in negotiation? There are many possibilities: Offer multiple proposals to find out what the other party values most, make tradeoffs to convey you’re willing to concede, go around the other party by finding a different negotiating partner, and so on. But if you are U.S. president Donald Trump, there is one particular tactic you’ll employ almost every time: Make a threat.

As president, Trump has threatened to have former secretary of state Hillary Clinton arrested, fire special counsel Robert Mueller, rewrite libel laws to punish his perceived adversaries in the media, revoke a license from NBC, and withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea, notes Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for the New York Times. Trump hasn’t followed through on those particular threats, but he has on others, such as his threats to impose steel and aluminum tariffs on U.S. allies and to pull out of the Paris climate accord and former president Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.

Trump is the only president in U.S. history to rely so heavily on threats in negotiation, according to Gettysburg College professor Shirley Anne Warshaw, an expert on presidential decision making. Past U.S. leaders have been too concerned about the twin risks of threats—the reputational damage of failing to follow through on them and the possible negative repercussions of carrying them out, including retaliation. We take a closer look at the current president’s pattern of threatening Mexico to beef up its border-enforcement policies to identify when threats work, when they don’t, and why we should all deploy them sparingly.

Walls and other borders

Having galvanized a base of supporters early in the 2016 presidential campaign around promises to curb illegal immigration, Trump repeatedly promised at campaign rallies to get Mexico to pay for a border wall with the United States. How would he follow through on that goal, given that Mexico said it would do no such thing? Eventually, the Trump campaign said it would induce compliance by threatening to cut off the roughly $25 billion that Mexicans living in the United States send to family members in Mexico each year, a move of questionable legality. Once in office, however, Trump dropped that threat and instead asked Congress to fund his desired wall.

The threat didn’t appear to cause the Mexican government to panic, but it did frighten many U.S. business leaders.

Two years later, with record numbers of migrants fleeing their Central American homelands, Trump threatened Mexico once again. “If Mexico doesn’t immediately stop ALL illegal immigration coming into the United States through our Southern Border,” he tweeted on March 29, 2019, “I will be CLOSING . . . the Border, or large sections of the Border, next week.” Mexico could head off this catastrophe, the American president said, by keeping Central American migrants from crossing its own southern border and taking in asylum seekers rejected by the U.S. immigration system.

The threat didn’t appear to cause the Mexican government to panic, but it did frighten many U.S. business leaders, given that $1.7 billion in goods and services cross the U.S. southern border daily, along with 500,000 legal workers, tourists, and others. A week later, under significant pressure, Trump backed down, changing his threat to a “one-year warning” to impose gradually increasing tariffs on Mexican imports, followed by a closing of the border if Mexico didn’t stanch the flow of illegal drugs into the United States.

Déjà vu all over again

This past May, with the influx of Central American migrants reaching a crisis point and his reelection campaign looming, Trump threatened to impose punishing import tariffs on Mexican goods—starting at 5% and rising as high as 25% by October—if the Mexican government didn’t take new steps to stem the immigration crisis.

Mexican officials joined Vice President Mike Pence and other U.S. leaders at the bargaining table. In a PowerPoint presentation, Mexican officials promised to deploy the nation’s new national guard to the Guatemalan border. They also agreed to allow asylum seekers to remain in Mexico until their U.S. legal cases were resolved. However, Mexico refused to meet a key U.S. demand—a “safe third country” treaty that would give the United States the power to reject asylum seekers if they had not first sought asylum in Mexico.

“Everyone very excited about the new deal with Mexico!” Trump tweeted nine days after his latest threat, which had proved hugely unpopular with U.S. businesses, congressional Republicans and Democrats, global leaders, and many Trump administration officials.

But as the Times reported, there was nothing new about the deal: Mexico had made the same promises in secret talks with then–U.S. secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen months before. In fact, the plan was already underway. In reaction to the Times’s reporting, Trump hinted that yet another secret agreement was in the works, a statement that Mexican foreign secretary Marcelo Ebrard denied.

A dysfunctional pattern

The Times’s Baker summarized what he viewed as the president’s approach to difficult challenges: “When the goal seems frustratingly out of reach through traditional means, threaten drastic action, set a deadline, demand concessions, cut a deal—real or imagined—avert the dire outcome, and declare victory.” The pattern accepts the appearance of progress as a substitute for actual progress toward goals. When it becomes undeniable that past goals aren’t being met, the process repeats itself.

In addition to allowing crises to fester, Trump’s pattern conveys to his counterparts that his threats can safely be ignored or addressed with hollow promises. The pattern also paints the U.S. government as an unreliable negotiating partner. Because the Trump administration had already renegotiated the North American Free Trade

Agreement with Mexico and Canada, the threat of new tariffs on Mexican goods sent the message that “No deal is ever a done deal,” writes Neil Irwin in the Times.

How to deliver an effective threat

When you’ve exhausted all efforts to build trust, foster collaboration, and brainstorm creative solutions, and your counterpart still won’t budge, a threat can help break through impasse and convey that you’re serious about meeting your goals. But to be effective, threats need to have the following characteristics, according to Adam D. Galinsky and Katie A. Liljenquist:

  • They convey that you’re prepared to follow through in the event of noncompliance. Wise negotiators recognize that no one will heed their threats if they routinely back down from them.
  • They are carefully crafted in advance to satisfy both parties’ interests, rather than delivered rashly under a cloud of emotion.
  • They allow both parties to exit the negotiation with their pride intact. Give the other party a face-saving way to meet your demands. If they do, don’t gloat; express gratitude.
  • They express unambiguous consequences of failing to meet your demands. The more precisely you convey your expectations, the easier it will be for the other party to comply.