As President Trump marks his first official visit to Europe with a high-level trip at the new NATO headquarters Thursday, he risks being overshadowed by an awkwardly timed trip by his predecessor, just a few hundred miles away.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former president Barack Obama are set to take part in a public discussion in front of Berlin’s most famous landmark, the Brandenburg Gate, on Thursday morning ahead of Trump’s trip to NATO. Some 80,000 spectators are expected to watch the event, part of a massive biennial festival organized by the German Protestant Church.
Obama flew into Berlin on Wednesday evening, not long after Trump had met with Pope Francis and the Italian prime minister during his visit to the Vatican and Rome. In the evening, Obama will travel to the town of Baden-Baden to receive an award and will fly to Edinburgh the next day.
German officials say that Obama’s visit was agreed upon before Trump scheduled his own trip to Europe and that Merkel herself is due to fly out to attend the Brussels meeting after the event at Brandenburg Gate. However, the contrast between their visits may be a reminder of just how differently the two leaders view the continent — and perhaps, just how differently the continent views them, too.
More than any recent U.S. leader, Europeans had warmed to Obama and trusted his viewpoint. The sentiment may have been strongest in Germany, Europe's economic and political powerhouse. Before he even became president, an estimated 200,000 Germans came to see the then-presumptive Democratic candidate speak in Berlin's Tiergarten Park, some wearing “Vote Obama” T-shirts.
Obama went on to form a strong personal bond with Merkel after he was elected. Despite a number of tense moments, including allegations that the National Security Agency monitored Merkel’s phone, that relationship endured: During Obama’s final official visit to Europe as president last November, the pair issued a joint warning to not take democracy “for granted.”
Trump’s own relationship with Europe has been a lot more complicated. The new president once equated Brussels, the European capital where he is staying Wednesday and Thursday, with a “hellhole.” At another point, he accused Merkel of “ruining Germany” with her immigration policies. Specific comments about the European Union and NATO have caused consternation among European officials, who worried both about Trump’s negative views of these institutions and his basic knowledge of them.
This attitude may have helped turn the European public against Trump. A Pew Research Center survey conducted last summer found that just 9 percent of Europeans had confidence in Trump, who was still a candidate at that point. Seventy-seven percent had confidence in Obama — including 86 percent of Germans. Distrust of the new U.S. leader may harm relations with European nations: A separate poll showed the number of Germans who said the United States was an ally dropped 37 percent between February and November.
But since he became president, Trump has softened his tone on a number of European issues, even declaring NATO “no longer obsolete” after meeting with the alliance’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in April.
“So far his bark has been worse than his bite when it comes to the core issues Europeans care about,” said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and professor of international affairs at Georgetown University.
Notably, on his first foreign trip since becoming president, Trump has spoken in a far more measured manner than he had on the campaign trail — before he even reached Europe, he had given a speech in praise of moderate Islam while in Saudi Arabia and spoke of his hopes for peace between Israel and the Palestinians while in Jerusalem.
Such statesmanlike behavior has helped the president move past lingering scandals at home, to an extent. However, some critics have also contrasted Trump’s behavior on the trip to that of his predecessor. After the sitting president signed a short, upbeat message at Israel's national Holocaust memorial Tuesday, social media users began to share Obama's lengthy and solemn note he had written when he visited Yad Vashem in 2013.
The contrasts may become more pronounced Thursday. Notably, the event at which Merkel and Obama will speak — part of the Kirchentag, which takes place on the 500th year of the reformation this year — has a not-very-Trumplike theme of “actively shaping democracy: taking responsibility at home and abroad.” The discussion will also be attended by church representatives as well as four youths; two from Germany and two from Chicago.
Obama will also speak in front of the Brandenburg Gate, the neoclassical arch near the Berlin Wall, a famous site from which Ronald Reagan called on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” Obama had been blocked from speaking at the site in 2008, though he returned to give a speech from the gate five years later.
“The choice of the location seems like a staging for the ‘good American’ the Germans would have liked to have seen in office,” said Thomas Jäger, professor of international politics and foreign policy at Cologne University “Trump on the other hand in the German perception embodies every negative American stereotype … a grandstander, too loud, successful in a way that one doesn’t like at all.”
That the event clashes with Trump’s time in Brussels may put pressure on him to make more of an impression on his European hosts. “It’s an important couple of days for President Trump because European leaders and publics are still sizing him up,” said Kupchan. “Opinions will firm up over the course of the next 48 hours.” But for Merkel, who is facing a federal election later this year, the chance to associate herself with both Obama and Trump in one day could be a positive.
“If you look at public opinion surveys, Barack Obama has retained a popularity in Germany that Donald Trump has not achieved,” said Karen Donfried, president of the German Marshall Fund and previously a member of Obama’s National Security Council. “Given the political year that we have in Germany, with a national election in September the chancellor could be well served by showing her relations with both the past U.S. president and the current U.S. president.”
Stephanie Kirchner contributed reporting from Berlin.
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