Hours after issuing a joint rebuke of President-elect Donald Trump‘s controversial populist message, President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke to the press Thursday, with Obama cautioning of a “meaner, harsher, more troubled world” to come.
Obama is on his last trip abroad as president. He followed a visit to Greece by meeting in Berlin Thursday with Merkel, a political centrist in a Europe that is moving further to the right politically. The event started 35 minutes late and ran for a little more than an hour, with Obama and Merkel answering a wide range of questions posed by reporters.
Answering one question from an American reporter on the state of America’s democracy, Obama urged “complacent” Americans who do not vote: “Do not take for granted our government systems and our way of life.” He said “democracy is weakened” when 43 percent of the population does not vote, as happened on Nov. 8.
Asked about Bashar al-Assad‘s assertion that a President Trump could be an ally of Syria, Merkel said “untold suffering” unleashed by Assad on civilians prevents Germany from ever being an Assad ally, but she made no reference to Trump’s potential position. Trump has signaled a desire for friendlier relations with Russia, a staunch supporter of Assad’s government, both politically and militarily.
The United States and Germany have been strong allies and trade partners for decades; Obama and Merkel have had an especially close political partnership on the world stage. Merkel now is widely seen as taking on alone the mantle of foreign relations positions that both promoted.
Obama said he hopes Trump “is willing to stand up to Russia when they deviate from our values and international norms.”
“My hope is that he [Trump] does not simply take a realpolitik approach and suggest if we cut some deals with Russia – even if it hurts people or violates international norms, or leaves smaller countries vulnerable, or leaves long-term problems in regions like Syria – that we do what’s convenient at the time,” Obama said.
Though under a cloud of uncertainty at Thursday’s press conference, there were moments of levity. While explaining in German why she will miss the outgoing president, Obama cracked a quick smile and winked on hearing the translation through his earpiece.
The two jointly wrote an opinion piece published Thursday morning, not mentioning Donald Trump by name but clearly referring to his promises to remove the United States from the trend to free trade, among other issues, like help for refugees and support for NATO.
“Our countries share a joint responsibility to protect and preserve our way of life,” Obama and Merkel wrote for the weekly Wirtschaftwoche. “It is in this spirit that we are working hard to ensure that international law and norms are respected around the globe – which remains a prerequisite for stability and prosperity.”
Trump has complained that other nations do not carry their weight in cooperative defense organizations like NATO, leading some members to fear the United States would not defend fellow NATO members in the event of an attack.
Obama has since said he’s convinced Trump is committed to supporting NATO. During a visit in Greece earlier in the week, Obama also stressed the importance of NATO member countries to meet goals in spending to support the bloc.
Trump has also said no refugees or immigrants from Muslim nations should be allowed to enter the United States until a vetting system can be put in place to ensure they are not a threat.
Obama is scheduled to have a dinner with Merkel Thursday night that is closed to the press. He will join a broader meeting Friday that includes leaders from Britain, France and Italy. He wraps up his six-day trip in Lima, Peru, for a major Asian economic summit. He is expected to meet again with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull while there.