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The Cable

Obama Urges Trump to Stand Strong on Russia, Soothe Nervous NATO Allies

But with the specter of a Trump administration, will it be enough?


It seemed a fitting bookend to a close diplomatic friendship. On Thursday, President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke side-by-side during his last trip to Germany as America’s leader. But Obamerkel struck a somber, ominous tone — one markedly different than the exubrancy of the outgoing president’s famous Berlin speech eight years ago.

Obama added his trip to Europe ahead of this year’s APEC Summit in Lima, Peru as a signal to European leaders that America is staunchly committed to both NATO and the transatlantic alliance. He also made time for one last joint press conference with Merkel, whom he called his closest foreign ally during his two terms in office.

So, too, is it likely Obama wanted to use the joint appearance to deliver yet another message to his successor on the importance of the preservation of liberalism and the Western order.

Across Europe, the reality of a President Donald Trump is still sinking in after the Republican firebrand populist scored a surprise upset in the Nov. 8 U.S. presidential election. Trump’s public fondness for Russian strongman President Vladimir Putin and outspoken skepticism for NATO may precipitate a radical shift for U.S. policy toward Europe when he steps into the Oval Office. This has many Europeans worried.

And so Obama used Thursday’s opportunity that was the press conference to urge Trump to avoid taking a “realpolitik” approach with Russia. “My hope is that the president elect…is also willing to stand up to Russia where they are deviating from our values or international norms,” he said.

Obamerkel are not alone in trying to emphasize the importance of both the NATO alliance and of socio-economic cooperation between Europe and America following Trump’s election.

“This is no time to question the value of the partnership between Europe and the United States,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg urged after Trump’s victory. “Going it alone is not an option, either for Europe or for the United States,” he wrote.

These comments come, of course, after Trump “raised serious questions” of U.S. commitments to the transatlantic military alliance, former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder told Foreign Policy. But he predicted Trump ultimately won’t back out.

“I don’t think he’s going to leave NATO. There are too many people around him who understand the danger [of leaving],” according to Julie Smith of the Center for a New American Security, citing Mike Pence, John Bolton, and other traditional GOP national security experts touted as key transition team leaders.

Others — namely, Europeans — are less sure. If the United States disengages from Europe in any way, either formal or informal, some experts worry that Europeans aren’t able to go it alone.  “At the end of the day, the Europeans do not trust one another on defense/security issues as much as they trust the United States,” Jorge Benitez, director of NATOSource at the Atlantic Council told FP.

And, as Thursday’s press conference identified, their concerns are not only about the military alliance. “There is a tremendous amount of anxiety in Europe,” said Smith. “This goes beyond Trump’s comments on NATO.”

“Many Europeans are wondering, ‘What will he do for Russia, trade deals, the Iran deal, and climate change?’” she said.

Obama and Merkel emphasized their cooperation on all of the above. And, listening to them, one could almost believe this is the way the Western world still works — with leaders of liberalism like Obama and Merkel at its helm.

But it isn’t. The press conference was the end of one chapter. And Merkel is left to begin — and perhaps defend — the next without her foreign friend.

“It’s hard for me to say goodbye,” she said Thursday. Perhaps in part because of the world to which she now must say hello.

Photo credit: Carsten Koall/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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