Updated on April 13 at 11:17 a.m. ET
On the day before this article for The Atlantic’s May issue launched online, President Trump walked back some of his anti-nato pronouncements at a White House press conference with nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg:
The secretary-general and I had a productive discussion about what more nato can do in the fight against terrorism. I complained about that a long time ago and they made a change, and now they do fight terrorism. I said it [nato] was obsolete. It's no longer obsolete.
These words represent a remarkable revolution in Trump’s previously pro-Putin, anti-Atlanticist foreign policy. They follow an even more breathtaking about-face on intervention in Syria. Previously stridently opposed to any U.S. action against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, Trump ordered a cruise-missile attack on a Syrian airfield—and then the next week criticized President Obama in a Fox Business interview for following the very advice that citizen Trump had pressed since 2013. Might the president yet reverse himself on the European Union too?
Trump’s policies are so poorly considered and so weakly held—his own interests so utterly subsumed in his business and his vulnerable ego—that literally almost any outcome is imaginable. We could well see Trump signing into law a Democratic Congress’s “Medicare for all.” Yet it’s also true that certain harms, once done, cannot so readily be undone. As new advisers replace the former Breitbart crew, President Trump might dial back the expression of hostility to the EU. European leaders can never again be certain, however, what might happen if those new advisers are in turn replaced. America has been immeasurably strengthened by its allies’ trust. Even as Trump’s aggressive words fade into reassuring conventionality, those allies will not soon forget their accumulated and well-grounded reasons for mistrust.