Thomas Gallatin / April 13, 2017

The Strategic Calculations Behind Trump’s Flip-Flops

He’s changed his tune on NATO and China’s currency for reasons essential to a good U.S. foreign policy strategy.

Headlines splashed across much of the mainstream media on Thursday morning stated that essentially Donald Trump had flipped his position on several campaign issues. Two of Trump’s policy changes were highlighted by the following headlines: Bloomberg’s headline, “Trump’s Reversal on China Currency His Latest Abandoned Promise” and the other in the Washington Post’s headline, “Trump on NATO: ‘I said it was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete.’

Given Trump’s typical off-the-cuff manner, it’s tempting to assume that he’s sliding into the realm of all flip-flopping politicians, but the truth — at least in these two cases — is more nuanced. In the case of China, Trump can’t think of its currency in a vacuum, but as part of his effort to contain North Korea. The U.S. and China will have to cooperate to some extent, meaning labeling China a currency manipulator is off the table for now. And as for NATO, a huge part of Trump’s strategy in Syria is to put pressure on Vladimir Putin. NATO is key in that calculation, thus it’s “no longer obsolete” — just as we argued from the beginning.

As with every campaign, the rhetoric of the politician is often overly simplistic, designed to present big picture issues in the most appealing way, while avoiding getting bogged down in the minutia of truly complex issues. Trump, like Barack Obama before him, proved to be skillful at connecting with Americans in getting his base message out clearly — “Make America Great Again.”

But unlike Obama, Trump truly was a non-establishment Washington outsider. Like anyone coming into a new job, there are things learned once on the job that can prove to change one’s perspective. To some degree, Trump is learning on the job, as have all presidents before him, but it would be naïve to suggest that Trump’s apparent flip-flop in policy position is due entirely to his newfound experience of being in office. Trump is a business man who is more of a pragmatist than an ideologue. He understands negotiating tactics — knowing when to “hold and when to fold.” And unlike Obama, Trump appears to truly listen to and trust the expertise of his cabinet and advisers.

On a final note, Trump’s shifting rhetoric on both China and NATO are encouraging and wise moves, but neither necessarily indicates that he has actually changed his policy position. This type of talking tough and then moving to the middle ground may have been his intention from the beginning.

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