Donald Trump will retain America’s commitment to the Nato alliance, Barack Obama has said, seeking to reassure a jittery world of continued American leadership.
The Republican was often critical of Nato during the presidential election campaign, branding it “obsolete” while praising the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, a source of alarm in foreign capitals.
But speaking in the White House
before heading to Europe
on his final foreign trip as president on Tuesday, Obama said Trump indicated when they met last week that he would not pull out of the decades-old alliance.
“There is enormous continuity beneath the day-to-day news that makes us that indispensable nation when it comes to maintaining order and promoting prosperity around the world,” he said. “That will continue. In my conversation with the president-elect he expressed a great interest in maintaining our core strategic relationships and so, one of the messages I will be able to deliver is his commitment to Nato and the transatlantic alliance.
Obama added: “I think that’s one of the most important functions I can serve at this stage during this trip is to let them know that there is no weakening of resolve when it comes to America’s commitment to maintaining a strong and robust Nato relationship and a recognition that those alliances aren’t just good for Europe, they’re good for the United States, and they’re vital for the world.”
The president touched down in Athens, Greece
, on Tuesday morning on the first stop of his week-long trip, which will also take in Germany
. He will meet more than a dozen foreign leaders seeking reassurance about what a Trump presidency means for global security.
In a uniquely rancorous election, Trump lost the popular vote but won in the electoral college, sparking protests in major cities and fears from rights groups that he will unleash forces of sexism, racism and homophobia. His appointment of Steve Bannon of the rightwing website Breitbart News as chief strategist did nothing to quell their concerns.
Obama, his legacy suddenly at risk, suggested that the Iran
nuclear deal and Paris
climate agreement would be harder to unravel than the Republican’s campaign rhetoric implied. He has also advised Trump that gestures matter and he should start building bridges now in a divided nation.
“I did say to him that because of the nature of the campaigns and the bitterness and ferocity of the campaigns that it’s really important to try to send some signals of unity and to reach out to minority groups or women or others that were concerned about the tenor of the campaign. And I think that’s something that he will want to do but this is all happening real fast.”
He declined to comment on Bannon’s appointment for the sake of smooth transition. “The people have spoken. Donald Trump will be the next president, the 45th president of the United States, and it will be up to him to set up a team that will serve him well and reflect his policies. Those who didn’t vote for him have to recognise that that’s how democracy works, that’s how the system operates.”
Obama was a fierce critic of Trump during the campaign, accusing him of offering slogans, exploiting fear and being “unfit” and “woefully unprepared” for the job. He mockingly asked how a man who had his Twitter account taken away by his aides could be trusted with the nuclear codes. He warned that tolerance was on the ballot.
Yet last week, he had to welcome Trump to the White House
, determined to oversee a peaceful and orderly transition. “We had a very cordial conversation,” he recalled. “That didn’t surprise me to some degree because he’s obviously a gregarious person, I think he likes to mix it up and to have a vigorous debate.
“What’s clear is that he was able to tap into, yes, the anxieties but also the enthusiasm of his voters in a way that was impressive and I said so to him. To the extent that there were a lot of folks who missed the Trump phenomenon, that connection he was able to make with his supporters, that was impervious to events that might have sunk another candidate, that’s powerful stuff.
“I also think that he is coming to this office with fewer hard and set policy prescriptions than another president might be arriving with. I don’t think he is ideological. I think ultimately he is pragmatic in that way and that can serve him well as long as he has good people around him and he has a clear sense of direction.
“Do I have concerns? Absolutely. Of course I’ve got concerns. He and I differ on a whole bunch of issues.”
The president said he believed Trump would come to realise the reality and gravity of the presidency. “I think the learning curve always continues,” he said. “This is a remarkable job. It is like no other job on earth and it is a constant flow of information and challenges and issues. That is truer now than it’s ever been … Regardless of what experience or assumptions he brought to the office, this office has a way of waking you up.”
Obama warned that there were “certain elements of his temperament that will not serve him well, unless he recognizes them and corrects” them.
Many regard Trump as the living repudiation of everything Obama stands for, but the president sought to find elements of consolation. The outgoing commander-in-chief said: “Campaigning is different from governing. I think he recognises that. I think he’s sincere in wanting to be a successful president and moving this country forward and I don’t think any president ever comes in saying to themself, ‘I want to figure out how to make people angry or alienate half the country’.
“I think he’s gonna try as best as he can to make sure he delivers, not just for the people who voted for him but the people at large.”
Obama also admitted that Democrats need to engage in “some reflection” about the way forward after last week’s shattering defeat which left Republicans in control of the White House, House and Senate. “I believe that we have better ideas, but I also believe that good ideas don’t matter if people don’t hear them,” he said. “We have to compete everywhere. We have to show up everywhere.”