BERLIN — Eight years after his electrifying speech here wooed a continent into re-embracing U.S. power, President Obama lands in Berlin on Wednesday to bid a bittersweet farewell to the one woman who might preserve his overseas legacy:
German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
U.S. allies in Europe fear the dawning of Donald Trump’s presidency could signal sharp shifts ahead in Washington’s stance on security, climate change, free trade, Russia and the Middle East. Obama, on his final foreign tour, will seek to assuage those concerns in exit meetings here with the leaders of Germany, Britain, France, Italy and Spain.
Trump’s victory is set to usher into the White House a worldview very different from the liberal democratic consensus that was the cornerstone of Obama’s partnership with Europe. With Britain disengaging after its vote to leave the European Union and other regional leaders mired in domestic battles, Obama’s exit is set to leave Merkel as the world’s most influential standard-bearer of those principles.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday in Athens, Obama acknowledged that populist movements, many with dark undertones, have been gaining ground across the globe.
“Obviously there’s something being tapped into, a suspicion of globalization, a desire to rein in its excesses, a suspicion of elites and governing institutions that people feel may not be responsive to their immediate needs,” he said. “And that sometimes gets wrapped up in issues of ethnic identity or religious identity or cultural identity. And that can be a volatile mix. It’s important to recognize, though, that those trends have always been there.”
A more inclusive world vision, the president added, “will win the day in the long term.”
Some see the levelheaded Merkel emerging as a possible counterpoint on the world stage to the steady global march of personality-based populism, including in the United States.
German officials are calculating that Trump may dial back his staunchest campaign pledges. But if he does not, “it would be difficult not only for Merkel but for all the European Union states and partners” to work with him, said Jürgen Hardt, a close Merkel ally and her party’s point man on transatlantic affairs.
Before the surprise result in the U.S. presidential election, Obama’s last official visit to Germany — the sixth of his presidency — was seen as a way to boost Merkel ahead of national elections next year. He was paying back a leader whom Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser, described as “the president’s closest partner over the course of his entire presidency.”
But now Obama’s visit marks a more consequential moment. No other world leader so closely matches Obama’s ideology of tireless diplomacy with an emphasis on human rights, tolerance and equality. Sharing similar temperaments, Merkel and Obama forged a friendship that helped broker several major agreements — including the deal on Iran’s nuclear program and sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
Obama “has been able to fashion a consensus with Berlin, and then Chancellor Merkel has been able to work the issue within the E.U.,” Charles A. Kupchan, the National Security Council’s senior director for European affairs, said in an interview. “It turns out to be a very effective vehicle for building a transatlantic consensus.”
But with that partnership drawing to a close, it is unclear what might replace it. Merkel is famously pragmatic and is likely to forge some kind of a working relationship with Trump. But she already has signaled her caution, issuing a carefully worded statement of congratulations after the elections that seemed to double as a warning.
“Germany and America are bound by common values — democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of each and every person, regardless of their origin, skin color, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or political views,” she said. “It is based on these values that I wish to offer close cooperation, both with me personally and between our countries’ governments.”
When Obama was first elected — and even before, when he drew a massive crowd in Berlin — he was hailed here as a healer of transatlantic relations that had been deeply tested during the presidency of George W. Bush. The Germans became some of Obama’s fiercest supporters, with his popularity ratings in Germany almost always higher than they ever were at home.
Trump’s election has had the opposite effect — provoking a sense of trepidation, even betrayal, that may factor into Merkel’s dealings with the president-elect.
“I don’t understand how America could have done this,” said Judith Schuelhle, 33, a university researcher who joined an anti-Trump protest at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate this past weekend.
“Trump’s election for me means that America can no longer be the leader of the free world,” she said. “Because Trump doesn’t speak for a free world. He speaks for everything we don’t stand for — anti-women, anti-equality, for hate.”
Merkel has not declared her candidacy for a fourth term next year, but some of her close allies suggest she will. Nonetheless, she is facing her own populist challenge amid a backlash against her open-door policy for refugees. If she runs again and wins, as many here still expect, history suggests she and Trump may find difficulties ahead.
An all-business pragmatist, consensus builder and trained physicist, Merkel eschews sentimentality and is known especially to distrust charismatic leaders. She was initially skeptical of Obama, too.
When he visited Berlin in 2008 as a candidate, Merkel reacted with “bewilderment” to Obama’s request to speak in front of the Brandenburg Gate — a request she promptly denied. Observers describe her as uneasy with Obama’s “Yes we can” campaign — the notion of one man affecting change. It was anathema to a woman who grew up in communist East Germany, leery of political one-man shows.
Even after Obama’s election, austerity-loving Merkel bristled at his administration’s spend-to-save economic rescue plan during the Great Recession. In a leaked 2009 communique to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from her confidant Sidney Blumenthal, the latter described Merkel’s “profound belief” that “the Obama administration is on a disastrous economic path.”
“Obama and Merkel are like oil and water,” he wrote.
Yet Obama managed to win her over, observers say, in part because he had no choice.
During his eight years in office, Merkel grew into her job as chancellor, becoming the ballast that kept Europe afloat as it stumbled from crisis to crisis. Under her leadership, Germany rose to the zenith of its post-World War II power — distancing itself every year from the dark days of the Nazis by leading the effort to combat global warming and taking in nearly 1 million migrants and refugees. She became the continent’s decider — and a leader ever more important to U.S. policy in Europe.
“Germany became pivotal during the Obama [administration] and under Merkel,” said Josef Janning, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Without German acceptance, nothing happens in the E.U. anymore. The White House read that, and understood that France and Britain have their own interests around the world. But if you get Germany on your side, you get the E.U.”
In 2013, Obama and Merkel faced their greatest test, when revelations emerged of U.S. spying on the chancellor. Germany expelled the CIA station chief. But in phone conversations with Obama, she seemed to couch the response as political expedience and nothing too personal. Privately, observers say, she was eager for the scandal to blow over so Washington and Berlin could move on.
Over time, their relationship was helped, many say, because the two share similar traits. They are cautious leaders, sometime to the point of seeming academic. Although she took hits at home and abroad, history would prove the German chancellor right, Obama has said, when it comes to her humanitarian stance during the refugee crisis.
Speaking to reporters Friday, Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, made it clear that from the president’s perspective, no other leader rivals Merkel.
“They’ve worked together on almost every issue. They’ve developed a deep mutual respect, I think, and close friendship as well,” he said. “So he wanted to see Chancellor Merkel one more time to thank her for her partnership and leadership.”