While watching President Trump’s April 12 press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, I was reminded of a famous quotation often (though probably erroneously) attributed to Mark Twain:
When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.
That quote maintains its popularity despite its dubious provenance because of its deft jab at the arrogance and solipsism of youth, but it can also be used as a metaphor for “outsider” presidential candidates. When one is relatively innocent of specific knowledge, it is easy to imagine that those with whom one disagrees are either ignorant or malevolent. Only as one grows in wisdom through experience can one begin to understand the reasoning behind decisions, and to see that those allegedly ignorant oldsters or insiders may actually be more sensible than one thought.
Thus has it been with Donald Trump and NATO. During the presidential campaign, Candidate Trump repeatedly denounced NATO as “obsolete” and attacked our European allies for failing to “pay their fair share” for their defense by meeting NATO’s defense budget target of two percent of GDP. After about three months in office, and a morning’s discussion with the alliance’s suave Norwegian civilian leader, President Trump declared, “I said it was obsolete; it’s no longer obsolete.”
What changed? According to President Trump, the alliance responded to his criticisms by devoting more attention to fighting terrorism and by discussing ways they could live up to their budgetary responsibilities, and thus (re-)gained his confidence. Secretary General Stoltenberg, like other European leaders, was polite enough not to quibble, preferring to welcome the president’s new sentiments rather than question his motivations. That’s the kind of tact that has allowed Stoltenberg to have such a successful career in international relations.
Policy analysts (and bloggers, of course) are less constrained by diplomatic niceties. So, it has to be said that President Trump’s praise of NATO’s alleged maturation is on par with Twain’s praise of his old man. Even while President Trump was demanding that NATO pay more attention to terrorism over the past year, people with actual knowledge of NATO operations had been discussing the alliance’s declarations and practical steps in that direction for over a decade. Stoltenberg himself had described those efforts in January 2016, and the alliance has been involved in combating extremism in Afghanistan since 2002. NATO has not changed overnight, but the president’s level of knowledge about the alliance’s work, and its importance to the United States’s global strategy, certainly has.
The last few weeks have seen President Trump make many discoveries about how much more complex the world is than he imagined during the campaign—from China’s currency policies to the proper responses to Syria and North Korea; from health care to the interest rate policies of the Federal Reserve. On China’s role in North Korea, the president declared that it only took a ten-minute discussion with Xi Jinping to make him realize his previous lack of understanding. It may have taken Jens Stoltenberg longer. Further reassessments of campaign assertions are no doubt on the horizon as the president settles into the responsibilities of governing.
This is not to say that NATO is perfect, nor even to say that Trump’s criticisms of the alliance were baseless, even if they were expressed in unusually hostile terms. Europeans and Americans have debated the proper sharing of strategic, budgetary, and leadership burdens for about as long as the alliance has existed, and with greater intensity since the end of the Cold War appeared to remove the alliance’s original raison d’être. Presidents and Secretaries of State and Defense have hectored NATO allies for years to be more active in advancing the alliance’s strategic goals and to be less parsimonious with their defense spending. Those debates will and should continue, just as we should hope that the president’s recognition of NATO’s value will lead to better intra-alliance negotiations about future alliance goals and policies.
A president being forced by circumstance to walk back confident campaign declarations is not unprecedented—consider Bill Clinton’s denunciations of the “Butchers of Beijing,” George W. Bush’s disdain for nation building, or even Barack Obama’s rejection of the individual mandate for health insurance. In the case of President Trump, the phenomenon is so notable both because the original statements were so categorical and because the pirouettes have come in such rapid succession so early in his term.
Being willing to learn and change positions based on new information is certainly better than closing one’s eyes to reality. The challenge comes when the president has to stop swinging between extremes and settle down to the steady realities of governing. Then, we will see whether the new positions are built on a firmer foundation of understanding than the old.