Obama to reassure Europe about Trump during farewell tour

Continent's leaders wary about direction of US policies, given 'populist, nationalist' views of President-elect

People in the Greek capital Athens reading the front pages of newspapers featuring the election of Mr Donald Trump as the next US president.
People in the Greek capital Athens reading the front pages of newspapers featuring the election of Mr Donald Trump as the next US president.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

WASHINGTON • US President Barack Obama will land in Europe today on a final official visit designed, in a strange bit of political contortion, at reassuring worried Europeans about a man he once warned was "unfit" for the presidency: Donald Trump.

The irony is cruel: In the name of a peaceful transition, Mr Obama, having thoroughly denounced the billionaire Republican during the recent presidential campaign, must now do his best to reassure his European counterparts about the future of American democracy under a President Trump.

"I think the design of the trip was meant to just give everybody some reassurance that we made it through this campaign and we're going to come out of it all right," said Ms Heather Conley of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington. "We just have a different scenario now."

The bombastic populist, whose victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton surprised many, has given Europeans ample cause for concern.

He has questioned the relevance of some of Washington's paramount alliances, starting with Nato, put the Paris climate-change accord in doubt by calling global warming "a hoax", and sharply criticised the strenuously negotiated pact that the United States and five other countries signed with Iran to curb its nuclear programme.

Mr Trump's attitude towards Russian President Vladimir Putin - the New York mogul called him "a leader, far more than our president has been a leader" - is deeply worrying in Europe, particularly in small countries like the Baltic nations living in Russia's shadow.

Beyond the many concerns over US foreign policy, many European Union countries are preparing for a possible ripple effect of the outspoken former reality-TV star's win.

"They are very worried, because the same populist, nationalist expressions" that Mr Trump exposed in America on immigration and trade could amplify the already "very strong political currents within Europe", Ms Conley said.

She noted that several European countries will be facing important elections, including the French presidential polls next spring.

In Greece today, for his first visit there, Mr Obama is set to meet President Prokopis Pavlopoulos and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

During a day heavy with symbolism, Mr Obama will visit the Parthenon in Athens tomorrow, then give a speech - sure to have considerable resonance, given the recent elections in his country - on the challenges of globalisation.

At the United Nations in September, when the US presidential campaign was in full stride, Mr Obama had called on his fellow leaders to come to grips with the rising frustrations fuelling populist movements.

His advisers, pointing not only to the results of that election but also to the equally stunning British vote to leave the EU, said Mr Obama would offer his thoughts on the reasons so many people in the world feel "like decisions are made beyond their control".

For his sixth visit to Germany since taking office in 2009, the Democratic President will again meet Chancellor Angela Merkel, long one of his closest foreign partners, according to Mr Ben Rhodes, the US national security adviser.

While in Germany, Mr Obama will also meet British Prime Minister Theresa May, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and French President Francois Hollande - who once said Mr Trump's "excesses" made people "want to retch".

Mr Obama will conclude his trip with a stop in Peru for a summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. Among the leaders he is expected to meet there is President Xi Jinping of China.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 15, 2016, with the headline 'Obama to reassure Europe about Trump during farewell tour'. Subscribe