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Opinion Is Trump learning — or ad-libbing — on foreign policy?

President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago on April 7. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)
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In the month of April, I found myself saying “I agree with Trump” more than anytime ever. On China, Russia, NATO and Syria, President Trump signaled radical changes in policy, nearly the complete opposite of what he said as a candidate. All were changes for the good — that is, new policy positions that advance American security, prosperity and values. The lingering question is whether these recent statements signal a fundamental change in Trump’s thinking about foreign policy or rather short-term reversals that could be reversed again. Is he learning or ad-libbing? It’s too early to tell.

All candidates say things on the campaign trail that they don’t intend to do after election. Trump, however, has changed course on some of his most fundamental pledges.

On China, Candidate Trump said “we can’t continue to allow China to rape our country.” But this month he suddenly affirmed the truth, that China was not a currency manipulator, and vowed to even give more trade concessions to the Chinese if they helped us deal with the North Korean threat. As for his campaign pledge to bring back jobs from China to the United States, Trump has articulated no plan at all.

On NATO, Candidate Trump called the most successful alliance in our history obsolete and even qualified the conditions for defending NATO countries if they were attacked. On the campaign trail, he called on our NATO allies to pay us for the defense we provided them, exposing how little he understood about the operations and values of the alliance. But President Trump sounds much more conventional. After his meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump pivoted completely, remarking bluntly, “I said it was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete.” NATO did not change in the past three months. Trump did.

On Syria, Candidate Trump expressed little interest in stopping Bashar al-Assad’s ruthless killing of innocent civilians or promoting human rights. He focused instead on fighting the Islamic State, suggesting at times that we might join forces with the Russians in this fight, an “alliance” that would have put us on the same side in this tragic war as Assad, Iran and Hezbollah. In the previous debate in 2013 about whether to use force against Assad in response to the Syrian dictator’s use of chemical weapons, Trump tweeted “Do not attack Syria.”

President Trump bombed Assad. After witnessing another horrific chemical weapons attack by Assad against Syrian civilians, Trump embraced humanitarian interventionism — the near opposite of what he promised on the campaign trail.

On Russia, Candidate Trump made many unorthodox statements about Vladimir Putin’s greatness and the need to “look into” recognizing Crimea as part of Russia. He suggested he would lift sanctions and most remarkably declared moral equivalency between the Kremlin and the White House. When asked about Putin’s violent ways, Candidate Trump replied, “our country does plenty of killing also.”

President Trump and his administration have sounded less ready to embrace Putin and seek a new detente with Russia. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said the United States would hold Russia accountable for Syrian government attacks against civilians. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson chided Russia for being either complicit or incompetent in allowing Assad to maintain chemical weapons. And even Trump acknowledged that relations with Russia were “at an all-time low” without offering a way to improve them.

There are three ways to explain these extraordinary reversals. One theory is that Trump is learning on the job. As a New York businessman, he hadn’t thought seriously about these foreign policy problems. Now sitting in the Oval Office, he has been compelled to wrestle with the complexities of international affairs. The job does that to everyone.

A second explanation is the rise in influence of his more talented foreign policy thinkers. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has begun to exert new sensibilities on the president. Trump fired Michael Flynn as national security adviser and upgraded to H.R. McMaster, who also has now begun to make his mark. Tillerson, it is reported, concurs with Mattis and McMaster on many foreign policy debates, and they all trend toward more conventional — and I would add the word “better” — foreign policies. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, also is reported to be playing a moderating influence on these foreign policy reversals.

A third explanation, however, is less comforting. Trump is not learning or listening, but ad-libbing. He is reacting to whatever the last leader said to him, be it Xi Jinping or Stoltenberg, not following comprehensive strategies. Horrific photos of innocent Syrian children being killed, not a new Syria policy, compelled him to act. Without a strategy or a set of foreign policy principles guiding his actions, he can easily flop back after a flip.

Regarding North Korea, for instance, Trump’s tweets seem equally impulsive. Maybe the threat from North Korea has changed qualitatively in the past three months, compelling the president to tweet that “North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them!” More likely, however, Trump’s impulses are helping to manufacture or accelerate this crisis. The same can be said about putting Iran on notice. On Russia, is the recent flip back to a more confrontational posture temporary or permanent? Will Trump flop again after his first meeting with Putin?

All administrations take time to settle in, develop their policy positions, and fill out their foreign policy teams. No president ever follows through exactly on his campaign promises. Trump might follow these historical patterns. Or he might not. It’s too early to tell. One good month does not make a coherent foreign policy.