Robert E. Hunter
In his last overseas trip as US president, Barack Obama this week travels to Athens and Berlin. Prior to the surprising election of Donald Trump to be his successor, Obama was primed to deal with economic and political issues that can’t be put off to the next administration, prepare Europeans for a smooth handover of power to Hillary Clinton, and take a victory lap at the end of his presidency.
Now his agenda has changed—or at least it should.
The US president’s most important task has suddenly become to reassure Europeans who are anxious, to put it mildly, about the election of a man who has not been particularly friendly to allies and partners on the European side of the Atlantic, who has expressed skepticism about the value to America of NATO and of trade deals like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and who has been pictured in the American media and even by Obama himself as unfit to be president and commander-in-chief.
Obama obviously cannot speak about domestic and foreign policies that Trump might pursue, and it would not be proper for him to do so. Nor, under the circumstances, can he honestly reassure Europeans about the forthcoming Trump presidency. But he can underscore what has begun as a relatively smooth transition of power. And he can personally attest to the continued, deep commitment of the overwhelming majority of Americans to the democratic process and their inherent, enduring values. Both Trump’s victory statement on Tuesday night and Clinton’s concession speech the next morning were in that spirit and were even gracious. And both Obama and Trump stressed the cordiality of their first meeting in the Oval Office last Thursday. This did not mean that bad feelings had suddenly given way to good. Rather, it was a shared recognition of the critical importance of preserving the fundamentals of the American system of government.
The best place for Obama to make that clear will be in Athens, the home of democracy, preferably in a major speech on the subject, at which he has excelled throughout his career.
Berlin is another matter. This will be the US president’s last meeting not just with the German Federal Chancellor, Angela Merkel, but also with leaders of France, Italy, and the United Kingdom— the so-called quint. Nor will discussions just be business-as-usual, a final “hail fellow, well met.” Obama has important, forward-looking work to do.
Most important, he should reinvigorate transatlantic relations in three primary areas.
First is to look beyond the current confrontation between the Russian Federation and the West, notably the United States, and lay out a realistic path to revitalizing the grand strategy that President George H. W. Bush laid out a quarter century ago: to foster a “Europe whole and free and at peace.” That obviously came up short, but an honest appraisal would not assign all responsibility for what went wrong to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Certainly, rehashing how we got here is unproductive and only feeds mutual hostility approaching in intensity that of the Cold War. Nor is it productive to argue that the new US president will be a Russian tool, a theme of Clinton’s campaign. Russia, Europe, and the US must in time find ways to live with one another. This most thoughtful of recent US presidents can present constructive ideas, including what Russia must do, the West will do, and what can be done together. That approach should appeal to Trump. He said Tuesday night that “while we will always put America’s interests first…we will get along with all other nations willing to get along with us.” Would European leaders have preferred that he say the opposite?
Europeans are also anxious that Trump will discard or at least renegotiate the nuclear deal with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. That would make the Middle East even more dangerous, perhaps lead to conflict (which Trump himself has said he does not want), and undo Obama’s signal legacy in foreign policy. It would also end European hopes of business and investment opportunities in Iran. Obama’s administration has clearly been dragging its feet on removing all the economic sanctions as mandated by the JCPOA, thus limiting opportunities for Europeans as well as Americans. Obama can help by telling his “quint” partners that he will immediately require people who work for him to get the job done of sanctions removal and allowing banks to do business in Iran. That might not help blunt efforts by Iranian hardliners who, along with Gulf Arabs, Israel, and their US supporters, want no part of better relations between Iran and the West. But at least Obama can do his part. This will help America in Europe and add to European incentives to press Trump to preserve the JCPOA.
President Obama should also lay out a basic framework for the future of transatlantic relations—a new Transatlantic Compact. At both the Cold War’s beginning and its end, farsighted leaders saw that ties across the Atlantic were critical to all. That remains true. In practice, these ties need to meld politics, economics, and security. They require roles for both public and private sectors. And they depend on many institutions and arrangements, notably NATO and the European Union, and the links among them. These activities and institutions are all in reasonable working order, but for years they have lacked the psychological and inspirational glue to bind them together. That requires leadership, which for too long has been in short supply throughout the Atlantic world.
The respective symbolism of Athens and Berlin provides Obama with a fitting way to end his role in a critical part of the globe. Two well-tuned speeches can provide a basis for transatlantic continuity and also ease the way with our European allies for President Trump.