National Security

In Greece, Obama tries to reassure anxious Europe


President Obama on Wednesday warned Europeans against a rising tide of nationalist politics that appears to be sweeping the Western world.

In a speech in Greece during his last foreign trip as president, Obama called for a rejection of the trend that last week helped sweep President-elect Donald Trump to power and has empowered archconservatives and isolationists across Europe.

“This impulse to pull back from a globalized world is understandable. If people feel that they’re losing control of their future, they will push back,” Obama said at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center in Athens.

{mosads}“We have seen it here in Greece, we’ve seen it across Europe, we’ve seen it in the United States, we saw it in the vote in Britain to leave the E.U.,” he added.

“But given the nature of technology, it is my assertion that it’s not possible to cut ourselves off from one another. … We can’t look backwards for answers; we have to look forward.”

Obama especially warned against trends that could be driving a breakup of Europe, following Britain’s “Brexit” referendum to withdraw from the European Union earlier this year.

“Today more than ever, the world needs a Europe that is strong and prosperous and democratic,” Obama said. “But all institutions in Europe have to ask themselves: ‘How can we make sure that people within individual countries feel as if their voices are still being heard, that their identities are being affirmed, that the decisions that are being made that will have a critical impact on their lives are not so remote that they have no ability to impact them?’”

Obama’s address in Greece, the birthplace of democracy, comes at a period of intense anxiety for leaders across Europe who worry about the rise of nationalist and populist politicians including Trump and Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French far-right National Front party. Le Pen has cheered Trump’s surprise victory on Election Day, and Nigel Farage, who spearheaded the British campaign to leave the E.U., has celebrated with the president-elect at Trump Tower.

In Greece, the neo-fascist Golden Dawn political party has gained ground over the last decade, on the heels of economic tensions within the E.U. and a flood of refugees out of the Middle East and North Africa through Greece.

“I have argued that the current path of globalization demands a course correction,” Obama said, calling for government efforts to reduce the frictions of economic inequality that come with increased globalization.

“In the years and decades ahead, our countries have to make sure that the benefits of an integrated global economy are more broadly shared by more people and that the negative impacts are squarely addressed.”

Obama was greeted in Greece this week by thousands of left-wing protesters who marched against the U.S. and the president’s visit. Many Greeks still blame the U.S. for support of the country’s military dictatorship four decades ago. Obama’s visit comes days before the anniversary of a 1973 revolt that helped topple that dictatorship.

In warning against rising nationalism, Obama also argued against support of authoritarian governments abroad, in an apparent effort to discourage countries from turning to Russian President Vladimir Putin and similar strongmen.

“Our trajectory as a country has been to support the efforts of those who believe in self-governance, who believe in those ideas that began here, so many years ago,” Obama said. “And it is not simply a matter of us being true to our values, it’s not just a matter of idealism — I believe it is practical for the United States to support democracies.”

The remarks seemed to be directed at Trump, as well as fears among national security analysts about the Republican’s surprising warmth for Putin throughout the presidential campaign. 

Obama’s comments also came as a rejection of Trump’s stated distrust of NATO.

Trump has suggested that U.S. support for the transatlantic alliance could be in jeopardy if other countries do not increase their contributions. Trump has openly toyed with the notion of not coming to the aide of NATO members under assault from foreign powers, as the pact would demand.

The U.S.’s commitment to NATO “will continue, including our pledge and our treaty obligation to defend every ally,” Obama said. “Our democracy shows that we’re stronger than terrorists and fundamentalists and absolutists who can’t tolerate difference, can’t tolerate ideas that differ from their own, who try to change their way of life through violence.”

Obama touted his achievements while in office that he claimed proved the benefits of diplomacy backed by democratic governance, including the nuclear deal with Iran, warming diplomatic relations with Cuba and a landmark climate pact reached in Paris last year. Those achievements might all be undone or scaled back under a Trump administration backed by Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress.

“More democracy is good for the people of the world but is also good for our national security,” Obama said.

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