WASHINGTON—President Trump’s threat to impose tariffs on Mexico was met with alarm from business leaders and many in his own party, who responded with corresponding relief when the threat was withdrawn Friday. No one, however, should have been surprised.
Using threats of punitive action even against allies to force negotiation has become a staple of Mr. Trump’s diplomatic playbook, from dangling the prospect of U.S. withdrawal from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization if Western nations didn’t increase their contributions to, in this case, hitting one of the U.S.’s largest trading partners with tariffs if it didn’t do more to stem migration across the southern U.S. border. As Mr. Trump views it, the threat creates leverage and leverage strengthens the U.S.’s hand.
Mr. Trump telegraphed his fondness for the tactic during his days as a real-estate developer. In his 1987 book “The Art of the Deal,” he wrote: “The best thing you can do is deal from strength, and leverage is the biggest strength you can have. Leverage is having something the other guy wants. Or better yet, needs. Or best of all, simply can’t do without.”
Critics see it another way: as unbecoming of a superpower and ultimately undermining America’s standing if it is perceived as too quick to make threats, which then appear empty if they aren’t followed through. Mr. Trump several times, for instance, has threatened to close the southern U.S. border to stem the flow of illegal migrants—at one point saying, “I’m not playing games”—but so far hasn’t done so.
“Threats and temper tantrums are no way to negotiate foreign policy,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) said Saturday.
Others, including several GOP senators, worried specifically about threatening tariffs on Mexico and their effect on the U.S. economy. Investors also fret, with stock prices frequently gyrating on the perceived seriousness of Mr. Trump’s threats. And Mr. Trump’s way of issuing his threats—often over Twitter and with little warning to his advisers—can undercut others in his administration, officials say.
The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment for this article.
Whether the president’s pressure-through-threats approach works in the furtherance of the issue at hand is another matter. With China, threatening, and imposing, stiff tariffs on Chinese imports to the U.S. has driven wide-ranging talks designed to alter the economic relationship between the two countries. Many in Washington view such changes as long overdue but any deal remains elusive.
With Mexico, it remains too early to tell whether the agreement reached Friday evening that led to the lifting of the tariff threat will be effective. Former administration officials and trade experts said the threat succeeded in bringing Mexico rapidly to the table. The U.S. is Mexico’s largest trading partner, and economists cautioned that if the tariffs had gone into effect, the Mexican economy could have tipped into recession.
Yet the deal that Mr. Trump on Saturday hailed as “very successful” reaffirms several existing agreements and plans for immigration measures that have been in effect for months—though the president reserves the right to review Mexico’s efforts to stem migration over the border every 90 days. Immigration experts say further efforts are needed to address the underlying problems that cause Central Americans to leave their home countries.
The president’s pairing of a threat with its subsequent withdrawal allows him to regularly declare wins, even if he hasn’t obtained any substantial concessions.
“No matter what, he’s going to declare victory,” Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist who advised Utah GOP Sen. Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign, said of the president. “He finds a way to even when it’s become clear that he’s run out of options and his threat is not having the intended effect.”
The president will likely continue to hold the prospect of tariffs over Mexico in the coming years, Mr. Madden said, which would create more uncertainty for U.S. businesses.
The president says he sees tariffs more as a negotiating tool than as a policy. “I’m using tariffs to negotiate,” Mr. Trump said in an October interview with The Wall Street Journal. He also said that the threat of tariffs helped his administration negotiate a new trade deal with Canada and Mexico, though none of the three countries has ratified the agreement. “Without tariffs I could have never made the deal,” Mr. Trump said.
The president has suggested that he also sees inconsistent messages as a useful negotiating tactic. He said on
recently that Iran faced its “official end” if it threatened the U.S. and sent conflicting signals as he ordered additional military power to the Middle East while declaring he would be open to talking to Iran’s leaders.
“At least Iran doesn’t know what to think, which at this point may very well be a good thing!” he tweeted last month.
Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif responded with his own Twitter taunt. Referring to U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, he wrote: “With the #B_Team doing one thing & @realDonaldTrump saying another thing, it is apparently the U.S. that ‘doesn’t know what to think.’”
Write to Rebecca Ballhaus at Rebecca.Ballhaus@wsj.com