President Donald Trump in recent days has changed direction, mostly for the better, on multiple foreign affairs matters.
Belatedly, he has recognized the value of NATO, an alliance he ridiculed as obsolete during the presidential campaign. Rather than acknowledge his earlier misjudgment, however, in declaring his support for NATO during a press conference with NATO’s secretary-general, the president said the alliance was no longer obsolete and had begun fighting terrorism. Actually, as the NATO official countered, it has long fought terrorism. In fact, the only time it has ever invoked Article 5 of its charter — stating that an attack on one member is an attack on all members — was after terrorists struck the United States on 9/11.
On another issue, President Trump last week dropped any pretense of isolationism when he ordered a missile strike on a Syrian air base. He also has swapped his overt admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin for a more coldly realistic appraisal that Russia’s support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has contributed mightily to the latter’s slaughter of his own people.
Having met last week with Chinese President Xi Jinping, President Trump seems to be evaluating China more objectively. Again reversing a position on which he campaigned, he now says China is not a currency manipulator, an allegation that could have led to a trade war. Perhaps in return, China did not join Russia in vetoing a U.N. resolution that condemned Syria for using nerve agents that killed scores of people. China also seems to be adopting a harder line with regard to North Korea, a move the United States has sought.
There’s plenty of speculation about why President Trump is changing positions. Among possibilities is the simple truth that being president is different from and harder than running for president. As President Trump indicated in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, dealing as president of the United States with issues of international importance is much more complicated than buying and selling property.
Another consideration is the waning authority of presidential adviser Steve Bannon, even beyond his disagreements with Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law who also is a key adviser. Mr. Bannon’s departure from the National Security Council suggests a return to a pragmatic and professional approach to national security at the expense of an ideological one. That’s appropriate.
If President Trump is learning that there’s more to being president than issuing tweets and executive orders, that would be welcome. It’s possible, however, that he’ll veer in another, less constructive direction, whether to serve as a distraction or simply because he enjoys being unpredictable. That’s been his history and helps explain his abysmal approval ratings.
In fairness, he’s been president for barely 12 weeks, not even one-fourth of his first year. His best moves so far have been his appointment of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and unleashing missiles to teach President Assad a lesson.
President Trump’s recent changes of position on NATO, Russia and China are all important and are hopeful signs. Some consistency now would be truly presidential.