Obama has shown he still believes in Europe

Story highlights

  • David A. Andelman: Obama's overseas trip signals his support for European experiment
  • He says Europe needs every reinforcement it can get as union faces uncertain future

David A. Andelman, editor emeritus of World Policy Journal and a member of the board of contributors of USA Today, is the author of "A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today." Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman.

(CNN)With much of Europe torturing itself, wondering where the United States stands these days on the future of the continent and a union that appears increasingly fragile, President Barack Obama's choice of Greece and Germany was a most adroit selection for his last overseas trip.

By visiting these two countries, the President is sending a signal of thinly disguised support for the European experiment -- and for those who lead it.
This trip is a final greeting card for what -- despite all of Europe's problems, from Brexit to the plummeting euro -- has been a close and profitable trans-Atlantic relationship. Clearly, Obama hopes that relationship will continue, with or without a trans-Atlantic trade pact or the United Kingdom as a part of the European Union.
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    "A strong and integrated and united Europe is essential to American national security and to global security and stability," Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, observed in a briefing before the President's departure, adding that Obama's aim is "to reinforce our support for the approaches that have been taken over the last eight years to try to promote economic growth, economic security and global cooperation on a whole range of issues."
    Reassuring words for a continent torn with conflicting tensions and challenges, which many fear President-elect Donald Trump seems to have given little thought, at least for the moment. But Rhodes noted, "We have one president at a time." And this President is playing to an eager and receptive audience.
    First he went to Greece, where Obama is the first US president to visit since Bill Clinton in 1999. Financially, Greece is still the sick man of Europe, and from his opening discussions there, Obama reinforced the importance of the world, but particularly Europe, coming to the financial aid of the country that is also a strategic gateway to the continent -- and the NATO alliance.
    Greece has also been a first landing point in Europe for a tsunami of refugees from Syria, Iraq and beyond. With the United States still reluctant to take more than a symbolic handful and with the president-designate threatening to cut that number to zero, Obama's is a critical message of support for a country that is trying desperately to find a humane way to cope with and pass along a tide of humanity that no one seems to want.
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    Finally, there's the ongoing tension between Greece and Turkey -- the only ongoing feud among NATO allies. The two neighbors still share the tensely divided island of Cyprus. This week's state visit is another strong signal as to which side Obama has chosen in the aftermath of a Turkish political crisis that seems to be spinning rapidly into a nasty dictatorship.
    He ends his final visit to Europe in Germany, the country that works so hard to solve many of these issues. Its leader, Angela Merkel, agreed to bankroll a succession of Greek bailouts, accepted by far the largest share of refugees of any European nation, and has for years played mediator between Greece and Turkey.
    Politically, the Obama trip comes at an opportune moment for the continent as a host of right-wing opposition groups seize on the Trump victory as a signal that their own political prospects may be on the rise.
    In Germany, Merkel has decided to stand for a fourth term as Chancellor, but she faces a host of demons, not least the Alternative for Germany, the anti-immigrant party that recently entered Berlin's state parliament after winning 14% of the vote.
    In Greece, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has managed to hang onto his office for a remarkable 14 months, by dint of a coalition of his left-wing Syriza party with the tiny Independent Greeks. But there are other forces out there waiting eagerly in the wings, such as the far-right Golden Dawn Party, which immediately upon Trump's election, attributed his victory to "the forces which oppose globalization, are fighting illegal migration and are in favor of clean ethnic states, in favor of self-sufficiency in the national economy."
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    But on Tuesday, standing next to the Greek leader at a press conference, Obama minced no words as he warned that Europeans "are less certain of their national identities or their place in the world" these days. "It starts looking different and disorienting. And there is no doubt that has produced populist movements, both from the left and the right," he said. "That sometimes gets wrapped up in issues of ethnic identity or religious identity or cultural identity. And that can be a volatile mix."
    The problems that Europe faces are real and immediate -- and unlikely to dissipate before the end of the Obama presidency. But the continent, especially those clinging so desperately to what appears to be an increasingly fragile reed of federalism as the solution to so many of its problems, needs every reinforcement it can get as it heads into increasingly stormy seas and a string of national elections that could decide the future of the union itself.