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Obama warns Europe of the dangers of withdrawing from the world in a challenging age

President Obama speaks at the Hanover Fair trade show Sunday in Germany.

President Obama speaks at the Hanover Fair trade show Sunday in Germany.

(Alexander Koerner / Getty Images)

President Obama challenged European nations on Monday to resist the forces that would divide their increasingly fragile union, calling their cooperation with one another and the U.S. essential to combating a new wave of economic and security trials.

Speaking in Germany on the final day of a three-nation international trip, Obama revived a theme he first expounded on when he visited this country as a candidate eight years ago and spoke of a more collaborative approach to the world’s challenges that would rely on strong European partners. His vision has helped navigate the global economic collapse, forge an international climate agreement and launch a diplomatic approach toward curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Obama said.

“None of those things could have happened if I, if the United States, did not have a partnership with a strong and united Europe,” he argued.

But in the wake of the recent attacks on European capitals by Islamic State, the continued instability of the Middle East that resulted in a refugee crisis that has hit Europe hardest and continued economic insecurity for many, Obama acknowledged a tendency “to withdraw” that was increasingly common on both sides of the Atlantic. Such detachment could only offer “false comfort,” Obama warned.

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“This is a defining moment. And what happens on this continent has consequences for people around the globe,” Obama said. “If a unified, peaceful, liberal, pluralistic, free-market Europe begins to doubt itself, begins to question the progress that’s been made over the last several decades, then we can’t expect the progress that is just now taking hold in many places around the world will continue.”

Obama’s attempt to buck up his international allies underscores the degree to which his foreign policy orthodoxy has been tested near the end of his presidency.

In his speech in Berlin eight years ago, he held up the city’s 20th century history as a case study for the virtue of multilateral action that he intended to pursue as president.

“People of the world, look at Berlin,” he said, “where a wall came down, a continent came together, and history proved that there is no challenge too great for a world that stands as one.”

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In that speech he made two goals on which he can claim progress: working to ensure Iran abandoned its nuclear ambitions and to “come together to save this planet.”

But a review of the speech eight years later also points to his shortcomings. He summoned the world to commit anew to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda and rebuild Afghanistan, fight religious extremism and expand trade, challenges that still remain.

Aides said that in writing the Hanover address, they intended to draw a direct line from his 2008 speech to today, arguing that the nature of current challenges only further call for a multilateral approach.

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“It’s a dangerous world, and so there are always going to be challenges,” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters, mentioning terrorism, migration and Russia’s continued disruptive behavior. “But the approaches that worked in the last seven years are the approaches that need to be applied to those issues.”

On Monday, Obama announced the U.S. would send another 250 military personnel to Syria to assist in fighting against Islamic State, days after a similar announcement with regard to Iraq. Obama said Europe, too, would need to “bear its share of the burden.”

After his speech, Obama met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi for a fresh assessment of the U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State, the war in Syria and the refugee crisis that it has spurred. Over his two days in Germany, in particular, Obama has praised Merkel’s handling of the refugee crisis repeatedly, partly in an effort to help buttress her domestic political standing.

Little new emerged from the meeting before Obama sped to Air Force One to return to Washington, after a six-day journey that began in Saudi Arabia.

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”Tonight, I’m going to sleep in my own bed,” Obama was heard telling his counterparts as the meeting began.

To watch Obama over the week since was to see a president all too aware of his waning days in office, at times nostalgic, at times wistful about the course he’s taken. Speaking to young Londoners this weekend, he reflected on what he said were his proudest accomplishments – expanding the health safety net while staving off a global collapse chief among them – while insisting it was far too early to identify what his legacy was.

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Monday’s speech appeared to be directed more at those fellow European leaders from whom Obama seeks continued cooperation, and historians Obama will ultimately rely on for validation of his legacy, than at a U.S. audience. His morning address to an audience of several hundred on the grounds of a major international trade show came in the middle of the night back in the U.S.

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Beyond connections to his 2008 Berlin address, aides noted that Obama’s itinerary on this trip mirrored the first major foreign trip of his presidency, which included a meeting with Queen Elizabeth in London, as this trip did, and his first NATO summit in Germany.

Obama looked ahead to the next NATO summit this summer in Poland, where, he said, he “will insist that all of us need to meet our responsibilities, united, together.”

“As today’s diffuse threats evolve, our alliance has to evolve,” he said. “We have to both make sure that NATO carries out its traditional mission, but also to meet the threats of NATO’s southern flank.”

As the line showed, there were some messages for Americans in the speech, too. His foreign policy view stands as a contrast with leading Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump, who has argued the U.S. is overextended abroad, paying too high a price in the search for global stability at a time when Americans face steep challenges of their own.

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“We reject the notion of America pulling back,” Rhodes said. “Our point has always been that focusing American strength through multilateral action both reduces the burden on the United States and leads to more effective and sustainable outcomes.”

Twitter: @mikememoli

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UPDATES:

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10:16 a.m.: This story was updated with Obama’s meeting with European leaders.

6:33 a.m.: This story was updated with comments from Obama’s speech.

This story was originally published at 3 a.m.


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