“Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them … well, I have others,” declared Groucho Marx. This has long been Donald Trump’s unofficial motto. But even by the US president’s loose standards, the U-turns of the last 24 hours are stunning.
Throughout his campaign and after entering the White House, Trump pursued rapprochement with Russia and confrontation with China. That stance has now been diametrically reversed. At a press conference last night, Trump remarked: “Right now we are not getting along with Russia at all. We may be at an all-time low in terms of relationship with Russia”. By contrast, in January, he tweeted: “Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. Only ‘stupid’ people, or fools, would think that it is bad!” Trump’s new Syria stance, the influence of hawkish Defence Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster and the scorn for his fetishisation of Vladimir Putin mean the US president has ceased his flattery.
China is another matter. After becoming president, Trump alarmed diplomats when he accepted a call from Taiwan (in defiance of the “One China” policy) and denounced Beijing as a currency manipulator. But last night, he transferred his affections from Putin to Xi Jinping. “I don’t know Putin, but I do know this gentleman,” he said. “I’ve spent a lot of time with him over the last two days, and he is the President of China. President Xi wants to do the right thing. We had a very good bonding. I think we had a very good chemistry together.” Having once accused China of economic “rape” against US, Trump talked up the possibility of a “good trade deal” and told the Wall Street Journal: “They’re not currency manipulators”.
Not content with these dizzying reversals, Trump declared of Nato: “I said it was obsolete; it’s no longer obsolete”. Though Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who accompanied the US president last night, will welcome the concession, he could be forgiven for simple bafflement. By any reasonable measure, Nato is little changed since Trump entered office.
Another figure who has made the transition from foe to friend is Janet Yellen. In his WSJ interview, Trump said of the Federal Reserve head: “I like her, I respect her” and declined to repeat his past prediction that he would not renominate her in 2018 (“It’s very early”). He previously declared that Yellen should be “ashamed” of herself for political bias.
Steve Bannon, by contrast, once Trump’s closest consigliere, appears to have entered political Siberia. Having removed the former Breitbart head from the National Security Council, Trump declined to express confidence in him, telling the New York Post: “I like Steve, but you have to remember he was not involved in my campaign until very late … I’m my own strategist”.
Bannon’s demotion both reflects and reinforces Trump’s less populist disposition. For good measure, he has also embraced the formerly reviled US Export-Import Bank (“a very good thing”) and reversed his vow to put tax cuts before healthcare reform.
U-turns are hardly unheard of in politics. And Trump’s global counterparts will be heartened that most of his are in the “right” (that is to say, orthodox) direction. But more than anything, Trump’s antics have underlined his sheer volatility (as well as ignorance). “When the facts change, I change my mind,” said Keynes. “What do you do, sir?” But Trump is capable of changing his mind even when the facts haven’t changed. Diplomacy depends above all on trust. Trump, however, has shown that his greatest loyalty is to opportunism. Leaders who side with him on Monday risk being traduced on Tuesday. Until that impression is erased, the US has little hope of projecting greater influence.