By Ishaan Tharoor
Call it a tale of two presidents. On the same day that President Trump visits the gleaming new NATO headquarters in Brussels, his predecessor will give a high-profile speech in Berlin. Former president Barack Obama is expected to return to the Brandenburg Gate on Thursday, basking in the admiration of his many European admirers while speaking alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a leader with whom he has a famous friendship. Obama will be participating in the celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant church. That it coincides with Trump’s tour of the Belgian capital is a scheduling quirk, but it’s a coincidence that feels fraught with symbolism.
On Wednesday, Trump entered the den of the proverbial globalists. Brussels is not just the headquarters of the West’s preeminent military alliance, but also the heart of the European Union and home to the sort of technocratic elites that Trump and the continent’s far right frequently rage against. Before he entered the White House, Trump deemed NATO “obsolete” and seemed to suggest that he would welcome the further dissolution of the European Union after Brexit.
“The mere fact that Trump has agreed to visit a city filled with international organizations he once called ‘obsolete’ is a victory,” The Washington Post’s Michael Birnbaum and Anthony Faiola wrote. And although a few months in office appear to have moderated Trump’s message, Obama’s star turn in Berlin will only deepen the sense of dissonance surrounding his successor.
An editorial in the Leipziger Zeitung newspaper said Obama’s presence in Germany would be that of a “healer.” Obama, the newspaper declared, “is a painfully missed ex-president,” an “eloquent, charismatic preacher.” These are qualities, it claimed, that Trump entirely lacks. No matter the polarization that seems to define American politics, Obama remains an incredibly well-regarded figure in Europe. An estimated 200,000 Germans rallied around Obama in Berlin before his first election in 2008, and that enthusiasm endured. A Pew Research Center survey last June found that 77 percent of Europeans had confidence in Obama, while only 9 percent felt the same way about Trump.
Obama’s popularity was even greater in Germany, where 86 percent of respondents said they had confidence in him. His Thursday appearance at the Brandenburg Gate, where Ronald Reagan famously upbraided the Soviet Union’s final leader, may reaffirm the spirit of American friendship — or at least spark some nostalgia for a cuddlier past.
“The choice of the location seems like a staging for the ‘good American’ Germans would have liked to have seen in office,” Thomas Jäger, a professor of international politics and foreign policy at Cologne University, said to my colleagues. “Trump, on the other hand, in the German perception embodies every negative American stereotype … a grandstander, too loud, successful in a way that one doesn’t like at all.”
The expectations surrounding Trump’s time in Brussels are not particularly high. At NATO he will stick to a familiar and safe script, urging the United States’ partners to share more of the burden in maintaining international security and emphasizing the need to focus on the war against Islamist extremism — two issues where he will find no resistance among NATO’s member states. Conspicuously, serious discussion about the challenge of Russia is not on the agenda. Trump will also meet several European leaders, including recently elected French President Emmanuel Macron, who campaigned with Obama’s blessing from afar and at times seemed to point to the perils of Trump’s presidency as a reason to vote against his own right-wing opponents. But now that the sitting U.S. president is in Europe, his interlocutors on the continent will hope he can be persuaded to embrace the institutions and the wider liberal order he railed against just months ago.
“There’s still a high degree of uncertainty when it comes to the aims and objectives of the Americans,” Cornelius Adebahr, an associate fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, said to The Post. “One of the main objectives is to convince the Americans of the value of these formats”. If that doesn’t happen, Europe will have some serious damage control to do.
Trump is “someone who doesn’t believe in the whole idea of engaging with European allies,” Tomas Valasek, head of the Carnegie Europe think tank, said to my colleagues. “At least part of the European countries’ strategy for dealing with Trump is essentially to hunker down and wait until he goes away.”
Ahead of the Group of Seven meeting in Sicily, where Trump will be in attendance, Merkel called for unity in the fight against global warming. The move was seen in part as a bid to push back against the Trump administration’s apparent desire to pull out of the Paris climate accords — a pact championed by Obama. There is hope among European officialdom that the “grown-ups” in the White House will coax Trump away from extreme positions and keep his foreign policy more in line with that of a traditional Republican president. Others caution against such complacency.
“European policymakers hope that [Trump] will listen to his team, live up to their promises, and not destroy the NATO alliance or the European Union in a fit of pique,” wrote Jeremy Shapiro of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “They would be wiser to hedge against his predictable unpredictability and seek their own means of securing their position in the world.”
*Tharoor wrote this report for The Washington Post which published it under the title “America’s past and future collide on a single day in Europe”, May 25th, 2017. Other than the graphics, the piece has not been tampered with – editor.