President Barack Obama is embarking on a series of meetings with world leaders just weeks after warning that the election of Donald Trump would leave the entire world “teetering.” And if signs from his administration are any guide, he’s leaving it to his successor to quell any residual anxiety.
Obama leaves Monday for Greece, Germany and Peru, where he will huddle with longtime U.S. allies and no doubt address the Republican candidate’s stunning and decisive victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton.
White House aides characterized world leaders as startled by Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail. And Obama delivered bleak assessments about Trump’s readiness, temperament and intellectual ability to be leader of the free world, saying the day before the election, “You know, it’s bad enough being arrogant [but] it’s bad being arrogant and not knowing anything.”
Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, told reporters Friday that the president knows every world leader will want to talk about Trump and what his election means beyond America’s borders.
Rhodes wouldn’t discuss how Obama intends to walk back his own words and put world leaders at ease.
The longtime Obama adviser brought each answer back to the ongoing transition process.
Obama will try to convince the leaders that he and his team are intent on making “the best use of this transition period, to fully brief up the president-elect and his team,” Rhodes said. He stressed that those talks will focus on the “diverse array of challenges,” including the Syrian conflict, terrorist groups, implementation of the Iran nuclear deal and the refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe.
Obama’s message, according to Rhodes, will focus on process rather than policy. Nor will he deal with Trump’s campaign promises to “bomb the [expletive] out of” the Islamic State, devote fewer dollars to NATO’s budget, ban Muslims from entering the United State, and rip up a massive trade deal Obama negotiated with 11 countries around the Pacific Rim.
Obama will explain simply that he and his aides will do all they can to help the former reality television star and his team take the reins on Jan. 20. After that, it’s all on the 45th U.S. president.
Obama can’t do much to assuage concerns about Trump, according to Heather Conley, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“They’re seeing one agenda that they thought they understood is now being pretty dramatically changed, or at least suggested that it will be changed,” she said of world leaders. “There is really nothing President Obama can do on that front.”
“Privately, I’m sure the president will message the strength of our institutions,” Rhodes said. “I would say Europe’s official governmental response was calm and fairly muted. You certainly heard very clear underscoring of the importance, transatlantically, of our values.”
After eight years of George W. Bush’s post-9/11 interventionist foreign policy, Obama used an approach based less on the use of military force than on building coalitions and pushing other countries to handle affairs in their neighborhoods. Even so, the rest of the world still turns to Washington, with its economic and combat power, to lead the way.
Rhodes offered the incoming administration a bit of a history lesson.
He said Obama will try to assure world leaders that “the United States always lives up to its commitments,” be they treaty obligations or agreements with other countries.
And he pointed out that the nuclear deal with Iran and the Paris agreement on climate change could be tough for Trump to undo because they are not simply pacts between Washington and another country.
“We’ve made clear we see the benefits of these approaches on the Iran deal and on the Paris agreement,” Rhodes said. But, in the end, he said, “the new administration will be responsible.”
To be sure, Obama has some explaining to do — though it’s doubtful he will try and speak for a man he called “unfit” to replace him. After all, in addition to his NATO and ISIS vows, Trump labeled China a serial currency manipulator and intellectual property thief; he said Japan is not a true American ally; and he insisted he would make South Korea “pay up” for the U.S. military aid it receives.