Offering pointed foreign policy advice to his successor, President Barack Obama expressed hope on Thursday that President-elect Donald Trump will stand up to Russia when it deviates from US “values and international norms” and not simply “cut some deals” with Vladimir Putin when convenient.
Obama, in a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel during his final presidential visit to Germany, said that while he does not expect Trump to “follow exactly our blueprint or our approach” he is hopeful that Trump will pursue constructive policies that defend democratic values and the rule of law.
He said Trump shouldn’t “simply take a realpolitik approach and suggest that 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’s convenient at the time.”
Obama began his presidency with a goal to “reset” ties with Russia, but they eventually plunged to the lowest point since the Cold War over conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.
Trump has spoken favourably of Putin but has outlined few specifics as to how he would go about recalibrating ties with the country.
Merkel, for her part, said she was approaching the incoming Trump administration with “an open mind” and was encouraged that the presidential process in the US was “working smoothly” so far.
It was the final meeting of Obama and Merkel as peers on the world stage, and both leaders spoke glowingly of each other’s leadership. Merkel was matter of fact about the coming transition in power in the U.S., saying, “We all know that democracy lives off change.” As for the limit on US presidents serving two terms, Merkel said simply, “It’s a tough rule: Eight years and that’s it.”
Obama, speaking broadly about the incoming president, said he was “cautiously optimistic” because “there is something about the solemn responsibilities of that office, the extraordinary demands that are placed on the United States,” that demand seriousness from a president.
“If you’re not serious about the job, then you probably won’t be there very long because it will expose problems,” Obama said.
Obama said he had cautioned Trump that the skills that got him elected may be different from those needed to unify the country and to gain the trust of those who didn’t support him. People will be watching “what he says” and “how he fills out his administration,” Obama added.
Obama had some advice for the American people, as well, advising them not to be complacent about democracy, noting that only 43 percent of eligible voters went to the polls.
“Do not take for granted our systems of government and our way of life,” he said. “Democracy is hard work.”
He said he wouldn’t advise those protesting Trump’s election to keep silent.
In Germany, officials hope the change in presidents will not bring about a significant shift in relations between the two nations or the NATO alliance.
Merkel worked well with President George W Bush before Obama’s election. She talked with Trump by phone after his election, offering him Germany’s “close cooperation,” but emphasizing it would be on the basis of what she said were shared values of “democracy, freedom, respect for the law and for the dignity of human beings, independently of origin, skin colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political views.”
A joint opinion piece by Obama and Merkel published Thursday in Germany’s weekly business magazine WirtschaftsWoche seemed directed as much at the incoming Trump administration in the US as at European nations. In it, the two leaders stressed that the “underlying bedrock of our shared values is strong” even if the pursuit of common goals is sometimes gone about differently.
Obama and Merkel noted that European Union-U.S. trade was the largest between any two partners worldwide, and emphasized that the trans-Atlantic friendship has helped forge a climate accord, provide help for refugees worldwide, form a collective defense under NATO, and strengthen the global fight against the Islamic State extremist group.
Trump, in contrast, has called climate change a “hoax” and said the climate accord should be renegotiated. He promised to tighten rules for accepting refugees, complained the US was paying more than its share to support NATO and has sharply criticized the US strategy for fighting IS.
Merkel and Obama have enjoyed a close relationship over the years, and Obama seems to be counting on the German leader’s strength to help counter the isolationist tone voiced by Trump during the election campaign.
The mood for Obama’s latest visit was significantly tamped down compared with his first visit to the German capital in 2008, when some 200,000 exuberant fans packed the road between the landmark Brandenburg Gate and Victory Column to hear the then-candidate, in a speech that solidified his place on the world stage.
Obama told Berliners then that progress requires sacrifice and shared burdens among allies.
“That is why America cannot turn inward,” Obama told the cheering crowd. “That is why Europe cannot turn inward.”
Eight years later, his words seem to have foreshadowed the nationalist, isolationist forces gaining traction in some parts of Europe and punctuated by Trump’s victory in the US election.
In Berlin, Obama will also meet Friday with the leaders of France, Italy, Spain and Britain. Obama’s last stop on his final foreign tour will be Peru over the weekend.