Obama’s final foreign trip was his last chance to warn the world about Trump, and to warn Trump about the world
In a brief, presumably final, face-to-face encounter, President Obama on Sunday appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin to fulfill agreements to scale back incursions into eastern Ukraine and work with the U.S. to bring order to chaos in Syria.
The night before, Obama sat with his Chinese counterpart to note important cooperation on climate change and regional security issues, particularly with regard to North Korea, before President Xi Jinping warned that relations with the U.S. were at a “hinge moment.”
Left unsaid in the diplomatic readouts by American officials was the specter of President-elect Donald Trump and the likelihood that he would take a far different approach in managing the most complex U.S. relationships abroad.
Under different electoral circumstances, Obama’s trip this week — his last, scheduled presidential tour overseas — could have been something of a valedictory march: a sweeping speech on democracy in its birthplace, Greece; a final fond farewell and early endorsement in Berlin for his most important partner, German Chancellor Angela Merkel; and an economic summit in Peru of Asian and Pacific leaders.
White House officials had even envisioned a chance of putting a bow on Obama’s strategy of reorienting U.S. attention to Asia by persuading a lame-duck session of Congress to consider the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the 12-nation Pacific Rim trade deal.
Trump’s election put an end to all that.
Instead, Obama was warning about the threats to democracy in an era of “active disinformation” that left the public struggling to separate fact from fiction. He and Merkel sternly lectured Trump from a distance about the obligations of leadership and the need to abide by international norms of behavior.
“I can’t be sure of anything,” Obama said of Trump’s approach. But the presidency, he said, “has a way of shaping your thinking and in some cases modifying your thinking because you recognize the solemn responsibility not only to the American people but the solemn responsibility America has as the most powerful country in the world.”
Obama had thought he would be handing off leadership of the Western powers to Hillary Clinton, his former secretary of State who ran a campaign largely on a platform of continuing Obama’s policies. Instead he appeared ready to pass that mantle off to another leader, Merkel, who now plans to seek a fourth term as chancellor.
“I do believe that Chancellor Merkel and Germany are a linchpin in protecting the basic tenets of a liberal, market-based democratic order that has created unprecedented prosperity and security for Europe, but also for the world,” Obama said in a joint interview with German television and print reporters.
In his news conference, however, he cautioned against any U.S. withdrawal from leadership of global institutions, warning that for all the world’s problems, the globe is far safer, more secure and prosperous than it was when the current international system was put into place.
“The United States really is an indispensable nation in our world order,” he said.
“Before that order was imposed, we had two world wars in the span of 30 years,” he noted. “In the second one, 60 million people were killed,” he added, “entire continents in rubble.”
In Asia, “you routinely saw famines of millions of people,” he said.
America can’t carry the sole burden of sustaining the modern global system, but other countries can’t replace U.S. leadership. If the U.S. shuns the role of heading the global order, “then it collapses … there’s nobody to fill the void,” he said.
“That’s a burden we should carry proudly,” Obama added, “an extraordinary privilege.”
As he concluded his trip, Obama also made it clear that he plans to govern through to the final day of his term, without regard for what Trump may have in the works. In his brief conversation with Putin, for example, he said he held fast to his position that Russia should respect the sovereignty of Ukraine and work for a peaceful resolution in Syria.
He also made it clear that his administration will move ahead with new environmental rules, even though Trump and the Republicans may not like them. The proposals are well-considered rules that have been under scrutiny and public discussion for a long time, he said, and they shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.
“I feel strongly these are the right things to do,” he said, “and I’m going to do them.”
Still, though, a postelection funk continued among the White House staff, defying Obama’s best efforts to shake them out of it and his frequent pleas to just about everyone to give the new president-elect time to prove skeptics wrong.
Those traveling with the president could not help but monitor the president-elect’s appointments to key positions. Many of Obama’s aides considered the choices curious, in some cases troubling and in almost all cases a signal of Trump’s intention for a clean break with the policies of the last eight years.
They also digested the feedback of foreign leaders who had manage to speak with Trump directly after the election, hopeful to put concerns to ease but not always finding reason to.
Obama spent his two terms working to strengthen global institutions, both out of his conviction that collective action is the best way to achieve success, but also to reduce the burden on the United States to singularly solve the world’s problems.
The president now has little choice but to put his faith in those institutions to bring along, or ultimately stand up to, a successor who appears to have very a different vision for U.S. leadership in the world.
The task before Obama over the last few days — to try to explain how his successor might act — seemed nearly impossible, given the adversarial history between the two men and the uncertainty caused by Trump’s contradictory pronouncements on foreign policy throughout the campaign.
Based on a single face-to-face meeting in the Oval Office days after the election, Obama felt assured enough to make one commitment to the international community: that Trump understood and would remain committed to the NATO alliance.
When it comes to the more thorny issues of confronting Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, addressing the humanitarian crisis in Syria and keeping up the campaign against Islamic State, Obama locked arms with key partners to send a different message to Trump: color within the lines.
“What I can guarantee is that reality will force him to adjust how he approaches many of these issues,” Obama said Sunday night. “That’s just the way this office works.”
For more 2016 campaign coverage, follow @mikememoli on Twitter
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