Donald Trump has recently reversed his stance on a number of key foreign policy issues: NATO, Russia, China, and Mexico. From a geopolitical perspective, Trump’s remarks validated that limitations exist in the real world—even for the US president.
These limitations explain why he has backtracked on some of his key campaign promises.
An About-Face On NATO
Alongside NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump made an unequivocal reversal on the organization when he stated, “I said it [NATO] was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete.”
He preceded this comment with acknowledgement that NATO had adapted and now meets the US demand for the organization to aid in the fight against terrorism.
The comment most likely was aimed to justify to the public Trump’s reversal on NATO.
Trump’s prior rhetoric implying that the US was ready to abandon the group was not to be taken literally, but rather as simply campaign talk. It also served as a threat to European countries to send the message that Washington would value bilateral relations more than the larger group.
Once in office, leaving NATO was never truly an option.
However, the domestic and foreign demands that Trump faced—many of which still subscribe to the ideal of multilateralism and internationalism—forced him to recant this view and adopt a more moderate and cooperative stance.
The second clear reversal of opinion occurred when Trump said, “We’re not getting along with Russia at all. We may be at an all-time low in terms of a relationship with Russia.”
In the lead-up to the 2016 election, Trump did not hold back in expressing his admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his desire to bring US-Russian relations to a cordial level.
However, the vision of Moscow and Washington becoming allies does not align with geopolitical realities. Russia seeks to expand its influence beyond its borders to create a buffer zone around core areas like Moscow and St. Petersburg. The westward expansion of Russian influence threatens Europe, which the US does not want to see dominated by Russia.
Washington needs to keep both Russia’s and Europe’s power in check, and an effective way of doing this involves allowing them to confront one another. Essentially, what is good for the US is the exact opposite of what is good for Russia. There is little to no middle ground for compromise.
Compromising On China And Mexico
Most important was Trump’s reversal on China. Trump not only revealed that the US would offer a good trade deal to China in exchange for help with North Korea, but also that he would not consider China a currency manipulator.
During his presidential campaign, Trump strongly criticized China for manipulating its currency and using other unfair trade practices that resulted in a large US trade deficit with China. He promised to rectify this imbalance once in office, but the realities he encountered prevent him from following through.
The escalation of North Korea’s potential threat to the US and its allies forced Trump to shift his stance on China. Concern is growing that Pyongyang may be closer to having the capability to adhere a nuclear warhead onto a medium-range missile.
Suddenly, the US could no longer ignore this threat. Enter China, the country that has steadily presented itself as a mediator that can keep North Korea in line.
As for Mexico, the changing position has had a lower profile. Its importance lies in what hasn’t happened. The US has not left NAFTA, and construction of Trump’s promised border wall is not even close to beginning.
Trump has downgraded his NAFTA rhetoric from leaving the association to revising the current agreement. The border wall has yet to get any congressional funding, and it already faces at least one lawsuit.
This shift can be largely attributed to large state economies that share a border with Mexico, specific economic sectors (especially farming) and special interest groups that depend on trade with Mexico.
The most vital takeaway is that, like any other president, he is succumbing to the constraints surrounding him. All presidents must adapt to reality after the campaign has ended.
Trump’s confrontation with reality and his reversals are more jarring than his predecessors’ due to the extreme positions he took during the campaign and the urgency with which he needs to regain support.
Trump is a weak president who lost the popular vote to his competitor but managed to win the White House thanks to the electoral college. He does not have control of or broad support from the party with which he was affiliated during the elections.
His approval rating, according to Gallup, is about 41 percent—among the lowest presidential approval ratings this soon after Inauguration Day.
Trump needs to gain support fast, and that requires extreme action. He won office by portraying himself as a radical isolationist, but such an extreme stance alienated him from centrist allies whose support is necessary for him to govern.
The sense of urgency comes from the fact that his shaky relationship with Congress cannot be completely lost and may still be salvageable.
So Trump has made moves to radically shift his position on some key issues hoping to gain centrist support, as outside constraints have made his prior statements no longer operative.
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