President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel jointly admonished President-elect Donald Trump to take seriously his new responsibilities on the world stage — staging an extraordinary scene in which the outgoing president and the leader of the country's most powerful European ally expressed concern over the newly elected president's approach to the world.
As Trump prepares to take over the White House, Obama has told Merkel he is worried about whether his successor will stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin as tensions escalate between Russia and the West.
Merkel has questions about what the new administration might mean for economic and national security issues, the victims of Syria's civil war — Trump has said he wants to keep its refugees out of the U.S. — and the fate of shared values such as the rule of law and human rights.
Together, their message was unmistakable: Too much is at stake for Trump not to take office with serious intent and an understanding of the consequences of his foreign policy.
"He ran an unconventional campaign," Obama said in a news conference here Thursday alongside Merkel. "He now has to transition to governance."
"What may work in generating enthusiasm or passion during elections may be different from what will work in terms of unifying the country," he said, adding that "the extraordinary demands that are placed on the United States … that forces you to focus.
"And if you're not serious about the job, then you probably won't be there very long."
Merkel was more circumspect but expressed clear concern about the possibility that a new administration might fail to stand up to Russian efforts to subvert its neighbors.
"For over 70 years we have been able to enjoy peace," she said. "To live in peace very much depends on territorial integrity and sovereignty of each and every European country being respected. In view of European history, the reverse would be the start of a very bitter road down a slippery slope, and we have to nip this in the bud."
They say that they hope for the best, that Trump's most outlandish campaign trail utterances will fade as he moves on to new responsibilities. But their warnings were aimed at a president-elect who has taken a scattershot approach to foreign affairs, raising eyebrows if not outright violating diplomatic protocol with some of his moves.
Obama ticked off a number of complicated problems — Syria, Islamic State, climate, refugees — and repeatedly said that taking a multinational approach was the only path toward a solution. It was a stark contrast to Trump's campaign pledges to tighten U.S. borders and to pull back on longstanding agreements such as the NATO alliance unless other countries pay their fair share.
Obama's chief foreign policy concern, however, was how Trump would deal with Russia. Obama blamed the nation for cyberattacks during the U.S. election, and his administration has also called for an investigation into Russia's bombardment of civilians in Syria, where it has provided military assistance to President Bashar Assad. Moscow has said that the U.S. has failed to live up to its agreement to fight terrorism in Syria.
"My hope is that he does not simply take a realpolitik approach and suggest that, you know, if we just cut some deals with Russia, even if it hurts people or even if it violates international norms, or even if it leaves smaller countries vulnerable or creates long-term problems in regions like Syria, that we just do whatever is convenient," Obama said of Trump.
Of particular concern in Europe is Russian aggression in the Baltics following its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
"Our conflict with Russia is not just about Ukraine, but also about preserving the international norms, treaties, and laws that have governed behaviors between states since the end of the World War II," said Michael McFaul, political science professor at Stanford University and Obama's former senior Russia advisor. "To abandon those principles would have long-term, negative implications for international stability. Obama understands these high stakes."
Merkel has told reporters that she would cooperate with Trump on the basis of respect for the rule of law and human dignity.
"We cannot stand alone," she said Thursday. "You cannot, when you just stand on your own, achieve much even though you may be economically strong," she said, saying that populists like Trump are preaching "unfriendly policies."
Obama's trip took on new dimensions after Trump's election.
With Trump's intentions unclear on several fronts, Obama's final visit to Berlin offered him a moment to hand over leadership to Merkel of the Western liberal world view.
A scientist who grew up in the former East Germany, the dispassionate Merkel is now the world leader with the greatest affinity for Obama. She showered him with praise for their "very close, very intensive cooperation" during his last trip abroad as president and came near to tears as he all but endorsed her for a fourth term as German chancellor. She has not said whether she'll run.
Her country is a leader on the continent already, having accepted millions of refugees from Syria and elsewhere in recent years in the biggest global humanitarian crisis since World War II and before that, leading the austerity effort to fight the economic crisis.
On Friday, Obama and Merkel plan to draw the leaders of France, Britain, Spain and Italy into the conversation about the future of Europe and their shared global agenda.
Even as Merkel expresses concern about Trump, though, other leaders are heartened by his popular appeal and plain-spoken manner. British leaders were proactive in reaching out to Trump, said Nile Gardiner, a Europe specialist with the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank. Poland and Hungary are also likely to warm to Trump's disdain for elitists and attention to economic concerns.
"Trump's approach is very different from that of any previous U.S. president," Gardiner said. "President Trump is far less likely to cultivate ties with the European Union. His focus will be more upon working with nation states, and individual European leaders, than collaboration with the Euro elites in Brussels."
Still, a priority for Germany and other major U.S. allies is NATO, the 67-year-old transatlantic military alliance. Trump was critical of NATO during the campaign, threatening to leave it should other countries fail to pay their share. But after their Oval Office meeting two days after his election, Obama said Trump indicated he was devoted to the longstanding U.S. commitment.
While Obama is reticent to represent Trump's point of view too strongly, according to aides, he emphasized that one affirmative statement after his sit-down with Merkel.
"I am encouraged by the president-elect's insistence that NATO is a commitment that does not change," Obama said.
If Obama and Merkel are hoping to persuade Trump, their first step is to mute their criticism.
After their meeting at the chancellery, Merkel emerged declaring that European leaders "understood the message" about the importance of transatlantic allies stepping up their engagement and correcting the imbalance in contributions to NATO.
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