President Barack Obama, returning to Berlin Thursday, intended to reassure his most stalwart global ally, Chancellor Angela Merkel, about her prospects under Donald Trump.
Instead, Obama found himself warning of an impending shift in the global order, one he advised could lead to a “meaner, harsher, more troubled world” if not stopped.
“Whoever is president and whoever is the chancellor of Germany and whoever is the leader of other European nations and other democracies around the world, they need to recognize that,” Obama said. “There are going to be forces that argue for cynicism. For looking the other way with somebody else’s problems. That are not going to champion people who are vulnerable because sometimes that’s politically convenient.”
“If we don’t have a strong transatlantic alliance that’s standing up for those things, we will be giving to our children a worst world,” he said. “We will go backwards instead of forwards. So whoever the US president is, whoever the chancellor of Germany is, we need to remember that. And our citizenry who decide who our presidents and chancellors are need to remember that.”
It was a dire prediction that barely matched the upbeat attitude Obama has attempted to put forward as he works to facilitate a peaceful transition to Trump’s presidency. In his appearances in Europe, Obama has made a point of hailing the NATO alliance, insisting that Trump remains committed to upholding the group’s commitment to mutual defense. And he expressed cautious optimism Thursday that Trump would moderate his tone once he assumes office.
But as his final foreign swing wears on, Obama’s alerts about the wave of nationalist politics spreading in the US and Europe have grown more dire. He bemoaned the way information flows in a digital age, and decried an echo-chamber of falsities masquerading as facts.
“In an age of social media where so many people are getting their information in sound bites and snippets off their phones, if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems,” he said. “If people, whether they’re conservative, liberal, left or right, are unwilling to compromise and engage in the democratic process and are taking absolutist views and demonizing opponents, then democracy will break down.”
He issued a warning to Trump in his dealings with Russia, cautioning that on issues like Ukraine and Syria, Moscow must be confronted head-on.
“I don’t expect the President-elect will follow exactly our blueprint or our approach, but my hope is he does not simply take a realpolitik approach and suggest we cut some deals with Russia, even if it hurts people or violates international norms or leaves smaller countries vulnerable,” he said.
And he said he advised Trump to tone down his campaign rhetoric during their Oval Office meeting last week.