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In the past week, Donald Trump has called NATO obsolete, described the European Union as a trading bloc designed to beat the United States, threatened to slap tariffs on German auto makers unless they manufacture more cars in America, and questioned Washington's nearly five-decades old recognition of Beijing as the government of all of China because "everything is under negotiation."

Do the president-elect's words represent his policies and preferences – or is he just setting the table for a whole lot of deal making?

Take his criticism of NATO. In his interview with the Times of London and the German publication Bild, Mr. Trump shocked Europeans by referring to it as "obsolete." But the only substantial criticism he offered was that its member states "weren't paying what they're supposed to be paying." Negotiating tactic? Maybe.

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The accusation of European (and Canadian) freeloading is not a new U.S. complaint. They've long griped that U.S. taxpayers are paying to defend a Europe that never picks up its own cheque. NATO's target for defence spending is 2 per cent of a member state's gross domestic product. The U.S. spends 3.6 per cent of GDP on defence; out of NATO's 27 other members, only four met or exceeded the 2-per-cent target last year. (Canada is near the back of the pack, at just 0.99 per cent of GDP).

Mr. Trump's goal may be to get the rest of the alliance to militarily pull its own weight. That's what traditional Republicans have always pushed for. Then again, Mr. Trump also gives every sign that he doesn't see why the U.S. has any interest in protecting Eastern Europe against Moscow. He also sounds like he wants to loosen and limit the alliance, regardless of how much Europeans spend on their militaries.

Or take his recent threats against auto makers and other companies with manufacturing facilities outside of the U.S., including talk of a tax or tariff on all imported goods.

This is also probably a negotiating tactic, and one the U.S. is best positioned to use. As the world's largest economy, it has the leverage to threaten manufacturers; smaller markets like Canada can't easily respond by playing the same card. As a result, Canada, Mexico and even Germany may be forced to think hard about what price they would be willing to pay – what, in other words, they would give away in negotiations – in order to persuade Mr. Trump and the U.S. to not throw up a new tariff wall.

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Because of America's size, Mr. Trump may be able to "win" this game. But in doing so, he will be damaging both his economy and that of America's trading partners. He will also be ripping up the rules of the game.

Since the Second World War, American administrations have treated more free trade as a net-positive: for the U.S. economy to gain, other countries don't have to lose. Mr. Trump is threatening to scrap that, replacing it with a view of trade as a zero-sum game: for us to get a factory, you have to lose one. As with his threats to NATO, it means chipping away at U.S. global leadership, since most of the countries in his sights are America's closest allies.

Or take his repeated questioning of the "One China" policy. It's hard to believe that this too isn't a negotiating ploy, and of a type that China itself uses frequently: You create a problem for the people on the other side of the table, and then you offer to make that problem go away – in return for a concession.

Mr. Trump may not be a China expert, but he immediately got how attached Beijing is to recognition that it is the government of all of China, including Taiwan. And because he gets it, he's refusing to give Beijing what it wants.

Having won the election, what was his first China-related act? Breaking the long-standing China-U.S. rules of engagement, taking a phone call from Taiwan's president, and publicly referring to her as "the president of Taiwan."

Creating artificial headaches for China is likely a way to gain leverage from the coming trade fight between Washington and Beijing. Hey, it's all part of the art of the deal. It worked for The Donald when he was a Manhattan real estate developer in the 1980s; surely the same methods will work for maintaining the Western alliance, expanding the global economy and achieving peaceful relations between nuclear armed superpowers. Right?

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