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The deal-making president

It was at the turn of the 1990s when I pounced upon a newly published book, entitled Trump: The Art Of The Deal, at a college bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Sitting amid rows of dry academic texts, this gem of a book stood out to me, then a business doctoral student.

I bought the book immediately and was glued to it for days. The little book of anecdotes seemed to contain a wealth of information about business that was not taught in business school. I had a strange premonition then that the lessons from this seemingly trivial book might one day take the world by storm.

And they have now, with the unexpected election of Mr Donald Trump of New York City, chairman and president of The Trump Organisation, as president of the world's largest economy, the United States. As President-elect, Mr Trump has very rapidly imprinted his wheeler-dealer style on the conduct of government business, including in his appointment of key business leaders to his core team.

The spectacular intent to dump the Trans-Pacific Partnership was one of the first big salvos he fired, and it will not be the last. Mr Trump has lamented that this trade pact is the worst of any deals for the US. It is a clear indication that any global matter will now be viewed not on a country-by-country or an issue-by-issue basis, but on a deal-by-deal basis with no place for principles.

Take as an example Mr Trump's statement that the US' "one China" policy is not a given but should be re-negotiated as a deal with concessions from China. He had earlier spoken to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen by telephone in a break with four decades of diplomatic protocol since Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979.

In any case, whether it is about handling the crises in Syria's Aleppo or Iraq's Mosul, Mr Trump will deploy a deal-making approach with local governments or rebels, as well as all other international and religion-oriented parties with a vested interest.

Even for companies, Mr Trump sees it fit that as soon-to-be president, he deals directly with them. The issues range from his gripe that Boeing is overcharging for the Air Force One programme to his call on American air-conditioner maker Carrier to keep jobs in the US. Indeed, Taiwanese firm Foxconn, the world's largest contract manufacturer of Apple's iPhone, is reportedly in discussion to invest on American soil. This followed a deal that its close affiliate, Japan's SoftBank, struck with Mr Trump to invest some US$50 billion (S$72 billion) and create 50,000 new jobs in the US over the next four years.

More significantly, Mr Trump has astounded the establishment and even the world by picking a Cabinet laden with industry captains and business icons. Many of the appointees have spent years in mega corporations, large investment banks or funds - striking deals.

The biggest prize is that of secretary of state. This role of top diplomat has gone against all expectations to ExxonMobil chairman and chief executive officer Rex Tillerson. Mr Tillerson's business experience is noteworthy. As leader of an American oil and gas company currently ranked by Forbes as the world's largest, he has scored many key energy deals, including with Russian entities.

Indeed, Mr Trump's core leadership team is plated with prime choices from the business world of dealing:

  • Mr Gary Cohn, president and chief operating officer of investment bank Goldman Sachs, will be director of the National Economic Council, akin to Mr Trump's top economic adviser.
  • Mr Steven Mnuchin, the incoming secretary of the treasury, was a hedge fund investor who spent much of his career at Goldman Sachs. He once partnered business magnate and political activist George Soros.
  • Mr Stephen Bannon, who also worked at Goldman Sachs dealing with mergers and acquisitions, will be chief strategist and senior counsellor to the president. He was most recently executive chairman of Breitbart News, a far-right news and opinion website.
  • Billionaire Wilbur Ross will be secretary of commerce. He is a formidable investor and banker and well known for restructuring failed companies in multiple industries. He was a skilful game-changer in many leveraged buyouts and distressed businesses.

Other key positions that have gone to corporate head honchos include secretary of labour, to Mr Andrew Puzder, CEO of CKE Restaurants, the parent company of Hardee's and Carl's Jr, and secretary of education, to Ms Elisabeth DeVos, chairman of The Windquest Group, a privately held operating group that invests in technology, manufacturing and clean energy.

And beyond the top leadership layer, there will be many more appointees in the next few echelons who have been significant leaders in the business world.

Call it the next New Deal if you will, but Mr Trump's choices are in all likelihood not random. This savvy and suave Cabinet has been put together by design. Most importantly, they will exude a new way of getting things done, a new order of sorts that the rest of the world has to get used to if they want to transact with the US.

So with a business-laced team helmed by Mr Trump himself, we will expect more of the deal-making modus operandi. The stance of the incoming US administration will be hard-hitting and nail-biting. There will be less time for rhetoric but more push to get straight to work. As in many a business competing in the ever-turbulent environment, the US will likely be more agile, versatile and decisive, much akin to how business negotiations are often carried out. There will always be a singular objective, in the same way that the bottom line often grounds business deals.

The rules of the game may well be in for a change. The new way is not about position-taking but deal-making. It is not about stating whether there is or is not a policy change, but rather making sense of each unique situation and striking one deal at a time. Countries and corporations alike will have to play by these rules if they want to get the better of Mr Trump and company.

In this new world, it is not business as usual in statecraft and diplomacy but rather business as unusual. One thing is for sure, I will be re-reading my old book, Trump: The Art Of The Deal.

•The writer is director of Centre for Governance, Institutions and Organisations at NUS Business School, National University of Singapore. He is also deputy head and associate professor of strategy and policy at the school.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 16, 2016, with the headline 'The deal-making president'. Print Edition | Subscribe