LONDON — Barack Obama planned to pivot to Asia, escape the Middle East, reboot with Latin America and elevate Africa. Europe, he hoped, would take care of itself.
No such luck.
Europe is in crisis, many U.S. officials believe, and when Obama delivers a speech in Hanover, Germany, on Monday, aides say he will be addressing the whole continent as it grapples with terrorism, nationalism, refugees and questions about the European Union’s survival.
It also marks a turnabout in Obama’s own thinking — amid grumbling by many European diplomats that the president hasn’t given the continent the attention it needs. Even some Obama aides acknowledge that Europe has sometimes been overshadowed by Obama’s other foreign priorities, like the Iran nuclear deal and relations with China.
Obama’s trip is a way of “sending out a signal that he’s not indifferent to what’s happening in Europe,” Peter Wittig, Germany’s ambassador to the United States, told Politico.
Though Obama has worked closely with European leaders on key issues like Iran and the 2011 air campaign in Libya, until recently he has not made its internal politics a high priority. That’s left some saying he prefers to cultivate new relationships in places like Havana and Tehran rather than shore up old alliances.
Obama came to office believing that “Europe had to think of itself as our partner, rather than us worrying about the security of Europe itself — which had been the preoccupation of the U.S. for a century,” said Dan Hamilton, a State Department official under President Bill Clinton who is now at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.
But with the Islamic State menacing Europe from within and Vladimir Putin threatening it from without, the preoccupation is back. In his address in Hanover, Obama will stress the need for a strong European Union as both an economic trading power and a source of common security.
Obama will also urge tolerance for the huge wave of refugees flowing into the continent from Africa and the Middle East, an issue that moves him personally.
Both issues will be on the agenda Monday when Obama meets with several European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Prime Ministers David Cameron of Britain and Matteo Renzi of Italy, and President François Hollande of France.
Meanwhile, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Homeland Security adviser Lisa Monaco will huddle with European officials on the ongoing threat of the Islamic State.
Also joining Obama is his top trade representative, Michael Froman, who will aim to make progress on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership trade deal with the EU, which Obama hopes to seal before he leaves office. Overshadowed by Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact with Asia, the deal would still be one of the world’s largest — though it is controversial enough to have drawn some 35,000 protesters in Hanover on Sunday.
Although Obama is personally popular among Europe’s people and leaders, many high officials on the continent have long grumbled about his talk of pivoting to Asia and building ties with developing nations.
“Obama has the thinnest record on Europe of any American president since before World War II,” Denis MacShane, a Labour Party member of Britain’s Parliament and former British minister of state for Europe, recently wrote for Politico Europe.
It was perhaps a telling detail when New York Times columnist Roger Cohen noted in 2010 that world clocks in the office of then-National Security Council aide Denis McDonough displayed the time in places like Tehran and Sanaa, Yemen — but not London, Paris or Berlin.
Current and former Obama aides say they never forgot about Europe, noting they inherited a set of relationships badly damaged by President George W. Bush, who left office reviled across the continent and whose administration famously dismissed the likes of France and Germany as “old Europe.”
“After the Bush era and the biggest crisis in trans-Atlantic relations in the postwar era over the Iraq War, European expectations for Obama were off the charts — and therefore impossible to meet,” said Philip Gordon, Obama’s former top White House aide for Europe. “Of course, Obama spent a lot of time on the Middle East, Asia and the fallout from the world financial crisis, and it would have been irresponsible not to, but I don’t think you can argue Obama ‘neglected’ Europe.”
Obama aides say these might not even be the darkest days Europe has faced since Obama took office. They recall the way Treasury officials warned them in 2011 that the continent’s spiraling debt crisis could trigger another global financial crash, one sure to bring down Obama’s reelection prospects with it. Obama and his senior aides spent hours on the phone with Merkel and other European officials trying to avoid that outcome.
At the same time, aides concede the U.S. public is focused on Europe more than at any time in Obama’s presidency — thanks in part to a U.S. media that now covers terrorism attacks in Europe with almost the intensity of attacks at home.
Though Obama will be addressing Europe as a whole, administration officials are also mindful of public opinion in Germany specifically. A 2015 Pew Research Center poll found Germans markedly less pro-American than their Western European neighbors.
While many older Germans fondly recall America’s defense of Berlin in the 1950s and famous anti-communist speeches there by John F. Kennedy (“Ich bin ein Berliner”) and Ronald Reagan (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”), younger Germans who came of age after the Cold War are more likely to associate the U.S. with the the Iraq War, shadowy drone strikes and the 2013 uproar over National Security Agency spying in their country — which included the tapping of Merkel’s personal cellphone. (“American-style Stasi methods,” one legislator who belongs to Merkel’s party fumed at the time, referring to the notorious East German police force.)
Obama has still brought America’s image a long way. In mid-2008, Pew found that only 31 percent of Germans had a positive view of the U.S. (Today the number is a healthier — if still wan — 50 percent.) Back then, Germans were twice as approving of Putin as they were of Bush.
Benjamin Oreskes contributed to this report.
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