Trump’s Election Upends Agenda for Obama’s Last Foreign Trip

  • Once a victory lap, president must now reassure the world
  • Foreign leaders have major questions about Obama’s successor

How U.S. International Relations and Policies May Change

Donald Trump’s election has changed the nature of President Barack Obama’s final foreign trip as commander in chief, a two-continent journey that he expected to be an amicable farewell to the leaders of more than two dozen countries.

Obama leaves this evening for Greece, Germany and Peru, a trip that would once have served as a tidy narrative symbolizing the handover of U.S. power to a like-minded fellow Democrat, Hillary Clinton.

Instead, after Trump’s victory on Nov. 8, Obama must reassure the world of something he may not quite believe himself: that the billionaire real estate developer and reality TV star will be ready to lead the free world by his Jan. 20 inauguration, and that America will continue to lead the way on using diplomacy to defuse international crises and on the protection of the environment.

All that Obama has accomplished in foreign affairs hangs in the balance. Trump has threatened to unravel a multi-nation deal to curtail Iran’s nuclear weapons programs, and may favor reversing sanctions on Russia intended to deter its aggression toward neighbors.

Trump has also said he would abandon the Paris accord on climate change and look to renegotiate or scrap various international trade deals. He’s also vowed new approaches to the fight against Islamic State and the refugee crisis in the Middle East and Africa. Obama is sure to face pointed questions about a man he once promised them would never be president.

Read More: Iran Sanctions Redux? -- a QuickTake

“The election will be the primary topic on people’s minds everywhere we go,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser -- especially “given the direction the election took.”

In Peru, Obama will attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, a meeting of 21 Pacific Rim governments. Obama once hoped he would arrive at the event able to boast of congressional ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation free trade agreement involving many of the group’s members. Trump dashed those dreams, campaigning in adamant opposition to the TPP, and Republican congressional leaders have all but ruled out ratifying it before the president-elect’s inauguration.

Now, Obama will meet with a series of nervous world leaders demanding answers about how Trump’s victory may affect their relations with the U.S., said Meredith Miller, vice president of Albright Stonebridge Group and a former official at the State Department’s Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs.

‘Strong Fundamentals’

“I don’t know there’s much he could say to effectively calm their anxieties,” Miller said in a telephone interview. “But I certainly expect that he’ll offer reassurances, most likely by highlighting the strong fundamentals of our relationships.”

Germany’s Angela Merkel, Obama’s closest international partner throughout his presidency, and China’s Xi Jinping, whose relationship with Obama is complicated and of enormous consequence, have some of the highest stakes in Trump’s ascendance. Trump has said the U.S. will close its borders to refugees from the Syrian civil war, putting him at odds with Merkel, who has made Germany a haven for displaced peoples. Trump has said he would declare China a currency manipulator, a step the Obama administration never took despite deep economic differences with the country.

Both leaders will meet privately with Obama during the week-long trip.

Obama will deliver a major speech in Athens with a two-fold goal. He will attempt to lend a boost to Greece’s effort to achieve an economic recovery, and argue that the U.S. election and the U.K.’s vote in June to leave the European Union aren’t a threat to global stability as long as governments seek to understand and respond to populist frustrations.

America First

“The design of the trip was meant to just give everybody some reassurance that we made it through this campaign and we’re going to come out on all right,” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We just have a different scenario now.”

Trump, with no governing experience, has alarmed many U.S. allies by proposing that intelligence agencies resume the “enhanced interrogation” techniques opponents describe as torture to advance the fight against Islamic terrorism. He has said the U.S. will adopt a more unilateral, “America-first” foreign policy and warm its relations with Russia. He criticized Merkel and China in campaign speeches.

Trump’s words and demeanor have softened since winning office, raising hopes among some observers, including Obama, that he may similarly moderate his most polarizing positions. In his victory speech, Trump’s message to “the world community” was conciliatory.

‘Partnership, Not Conflict’

“We will deal fairly with everyone,” he said. “All people and all other nations. We will seek common ground, not hostility; partnership, not conflict.”

Obama’s meeting with Trump at the White House on Nov. 10 was aimed, in part, at getting a sense of the Republican’s readiness to lead and to emphasize to the president-elect that world leaders were curious about his agenda.

“President Obama will be speaking for himself and for the office of the presidency,” Rhodes said. “He can convey, obviously, that the United States of America fulfills its commitments through democratic transitions and through different administrations.”

In addition to Xi and Merkel, the president will meet with leaders of the U.K., Peru, France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Australia and several Southeast Asian nations. Questions about Trump’s foreign policy vision are likely to dominate those chats. At this point, Obama’s own views of the U.S. relationship with the world are moot.

‘Uniquely Unqualified’

“His role now becomes a bridge to an administration with which he has very different views,” said Patrick Cronin, senior adviser for the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “He’s got to reassure the global community that what’s coming next will not lead to complete fragmentation and a breakdown of order.”

The task is made more difficult because Obama campaigned vigorously against Trump’s election, declaring at a series of rallies that the billionaire was “uniquely unqualified” to be president and “temperamentally unfit” to hold the codes to America’s nuclear arsenal.

Obama tried to sound more optimistic the day after Trump’s victory, observing that “the sun is up,” and pledging to ensure a smooth transition to the man who once questioned Obama’s religious beliefs, patriotism, and very eligibility to hold office.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
    LEARN MORE