President Obama on Monday heads for Europe and then South America to face world leaders wondering what to expect from the U.S. after he leaves office, and to deliver the only honest answer he has: He just doesn’t know.
Aides to the president have spent the last few days wrestling with what to say about President-elect Donald Trump on the global stage. A private one-on-one meeting in the Oval Office a few days ago between Trump and Obama did little to shed light.
As a result, Obama is planning simply to note Trump’s public commitment to work with him on a peaceful transfer of power, and to point to the historical precedent of U.S. presidents honoring longstanding alliances
“Presidents in both parties have been committed to investing in those alliances,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said. “That’s certainly what has happened in the past.”
Obama had hoped to be more specific when he first planned this trip months ago. Harboring a deep concern about the uncertain future of Europe, thrust into its own incendiary mix of a rise of nationalism amid an influx of millions of refugees, he wanted to use his final official foreign trip to reassure European allies and pledge support for shared policies.
At the time, he believed that Democrat Hillary Clinton would be elected to succeed him in the White House and that he’d be endorsing her plans to remain on the same foreign policy track after a long and divisive presidential campaign.
Of particular concern to the leaders of NATO-allied countries, many of whom Obama will meet with this week, is Trump’s profession of admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The allies are at odds with Russia over its intervention in Ukraine, aggression in the Baltics and military support for Syrian President Bashar Assad in the years-long civil war there.
“This trip was really meant to say, ‘You know, we went through it, but we’re going to be fine,’” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Now the president has the unenviable task of explaining.”
European leaders fear “the Trump effect,” she said, and “are very worried because the same populist, nationalist expressions, whether that’s on immigration, whether that is on free trade, has certainly been running very strong political currents within Europe.”
Obama doesn’t want to explain or speculate about Trump’s plans, one senior aide said. Nor does he want to speak disrespectfully of the president-elect in private meetings with world leaders who may be trying to figure out how to deal with or even manipulate the new head of state. At the same time, Obama wants to be frank about the concerns and aspirations of Americans who elected Trump.
The high-wire act begins Monday as Obama leaves for Athens, where he’ll discuss the NATO alliance and Greece’s economic recovery with the country’s leaders. He’ll also visit the Parthenon, that ancient symbol of democracy and western civilization, and deliver a major speech on how the world has changed while he has been in office.
On Thursday he’ll fly to Berlin to pay one final visit to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom he considers his closest partner over the course of his presidency. On Friday he will take part in a broader meeting that also includes the leaders of Britain, France, Italy and Spain.
Obama will weigh in with a much larger group of world leaders after flying to Peru on Friday for a summit of the 21 members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation organization. Obama will publicly confront the likelihood that the U.S. will back out of the massive Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal he spent years pushing. Trump made clear on the campaign trail that he is against it.
Obama also may have to acknowledge to all of them, particularly Chinese President Xi Jinping, that the Trump-led government may not live up to the obligations of the global climate deal he pushed and that Obama and Xi jump-started with their own agreement two years ago.
And the South Korean and Japanese delegation will surely want to talk about Trump’s suggestions during the campaign that it might be a good idea for their countries to obtain nuclear weapons.
Trump’s nuclear policy remains elusive. He denied Sunday that he had recommended Japan or South Korea arm themselves with nuclear weapons, though he said so in a forum in March during a discussion of how to counter North Korea’s efforts to obtain nuclear weapons.
“I have absolutely no idea” what Trump’s view is, said James Acton, a nuclear specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “And neither, I strongly suspect, does he.”
Trump has also said some allies don’t pay enough to support U.S. military bases in their countries and suggested that perhaps the bases should close.
“We defend Japan. We defend Germany. We defend South Korea. We defend Saudi Arabia,” Trump said during one presidential debate. “They do not pay us what they should be paying us.”
Obama may not want to stoke fear, but he also shares those leaders’ concern about what is happening across the globe.
Following his meeting with Trump in the Oval Office on Thursday, aides to the president were reluctant to speculate about whether Trump will dial back from his campaign rhetoric.
“I’ll let the president-elect and his team discuss what their plans are,” Earnest said. “But certainly our allies should understand the longstanding history in this country about the way that we not just maintain but actually advance our alliances around the world.”