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The surprising similarities of Trump and Obama on foreign policy

Finding the patterns

Donald Trump calls his foreign policy 'America first.' But in important ways, it's just an amplification of Obama's 'lead from behind.'

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    President Barack Obama walks with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras into the Maximos Mansion for their joint meeting and news conference in Athens Tuesday.
    Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
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Barack Obama undertakes his last overseas trip as president this week with an adjusted mission in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory: to reassure allies and partners about continuing support for them and America’s unwavering global leadership.

But in some ways Mr. Obama provided the dress rehearsal to what many expect to be Mr. Trump’s more nationalist, America-first, and less interventionist foreign policy.

Obama is the president who labeled the United States’ NATO allies “free riders,” who focused on getting the US out of George W. Bush’s Middle East wars while staying out of new ones, and who honed an offshore counterterrorism warfare that avoids placing American boots on the ground.

“One of the most under-reported stories of the campaign has been the similarities in the worldviews of President Obama and Donald Trump, so I don’t think Obama can provide much reassurance to America’s partners,” says Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

“Broadly, Obama and Trump have said the same things – they’re both of the view that the United States shouldn’t be out there, they both have said pretty much the same thing about the Europeans being free riders,” she says. “And they’ve both offered up this sense that, ‘I can manage the Russians, I can certainly manage our allies – and if I can’t, they don’t matter anyway.’ ”

That confluence of thinking does not mean Obama and Trump see eye-to-eye on every key foreign-policy issue. Trump threatens to tear up Obama’s signature Iran nuclear deal, while suggesting he can live with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad – a leader Obama has said “must go.” But Trump’s administration could lead some foreign leaders to wonder if they’re just getting a starker form of a retreating America.

Some foreign-policy experts underscore the value of having the outgoing president deliver reassurances about America’s stability and commitment to international partners – even if they question just how comforting those words can be coming from Obama.

“There’s certainly a usefulness in having the president offer reassurances, but there’s also a paradox in that in many ways Obama has not been all that reassuring to our allies,” says Robert Lieber, a professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University. “Since coming into office he’s put a lot of distance between us and our principal allies in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.”

Obama's new role

In the run-up to Obama’s six-day trip to Greece and Germany, and then Peru to meet with Asian-Pacific leaders, White House officials have said one of the president’s goals will be to calm allies’ nerves.

Obama, whose trip begins Tuesday in Athens, can report on his 90-minute White House meeting with the president-elect, which he described as “excellent.” He can also cite Trump’s own words of reassurance to US allies.

“I want to tell the world community that while we will always put America’s interests first, we will deal fairly with everyone,” Trump said in his brief victory speech Nov. 9. “We will seek common ground, not hostility; partnership, not conflict.”

In a pre-trip press conference Monday, Obama expressed his confidence that the US will maintain its strong commitment to the NATO alliance, noting that Trump had assured him of his “great interest in maintaining our core strategic relationships.”    

All this can help calm allies, particularly in Europe, who are shrieking, “What has happened to America?” Dr. Lieber says.

“Some of our allies, especially in Europe, are going nuts. They think it’s the end of the world as we know it, and it’s not,” says Lieber, author of the recent book “Retreat and its Consequences: American Foreign Policy and the Problem of World Order.” “But in that context, I think Obama can relieve the hysteria by underscoring the continuity of our institutions and the hardiness and stability of our democratic process.”

Where Obama won’t be able to offer any soothing balm is over Trump’s way forward with a Russia that is increasingly belligerent toward Europe; Trump offered praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin during the campaign.

The Russia/China question

Nor will the president be able to smooth ruffled feathers over the US retreat from its traditional role as chief promoter of global free trade.

Obama will take up the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal with APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) leaders in Peru. But most analysts say Obama will foretell the trade pact’s likely demise if he’s honest.

“It’s hard to see a future for TPP, and that’s unfortunate,” says Lieber. “It’s a loss for us and our allies, and [that loss] strengthens China and its allies.”

Given Trump’s stated admiration for authoritarian leaders, some Europeans fear the new US president will cast traditional European allies aside and cozy up to Mr. Putin and even to China’s Xi Jinping.

Trump spoke by phone with both Putin and Mr. Xi this week. In a statement Monday, the Chinese government said that “President-elect Trump stated that he believes the two leaders will have one of the strongest relationships for both countries moving forward.” Those words were notably brighter than Trump’s frequent campaign attacks on China’s trade and currency practices.

Reassurance is a two-way street

Amid such uncertainty about America’s relations with the world, some are noting that offering reassurances is a two-way street, and they are calling on European leaders in particular to offer evidence of the importance of the trans-Atlantic relationship.

“The most meaningful message Europe can send Trump is a simple one: a guarantee to increase defense spending to the 2 percent level required by NATO,” said Alan Mendoza, executive director of The Henry Jackson Society, a British think tank promoting a robust US foreign policy based on strength and Western principles, in a statement.

Others say the uncertainty about Trump’s foreign policy will continue at least until Trump names his top foreign-policy and national security advisers.

“I don’t think he’s entirely committed to anything, so it’s hard to know whether he’s going to go farther with some of these ideas and carry them out or not,” says Ms. Pletka. “It will be hard to know until we see who gets appointed to these top [foreign policy] jobs, but even then it will take a while.”

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