Don’t expect to find them vacationing together anytime soon, but Donald Trump and Barack Obama will be taking trips to Europe at the same time this spring. As Obama travels to Germany for an event celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant church, Trump will be heading to Brussels, Belgium for the annual meeting of the world’s NATO leaders.
The timing of the trips is simple coincidence: Obama was invited to the event by German Chancellor Angela Merkel last year, before his time as President had come to a close, and the NATO summit was only recently scheduled by Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg for May 25.
However, the presence of the two most recent U.S. Presidents on the European continent is prompting conversations worldwide. Obama and Trump advocate starkly divergent worldviews, and appear to want completely different things for the United States and the general post-World War II world order. Obama has been silent for the months after Trump’s inauguration, but the former President is expected to reenter the fray in Washington due in large part to his antipathy for Trump and his policies.
President Trump, on the other hand, will be making his first foreign trip while in office when he departs for Brussels. As he has had to deal with consequential failures on the homefront, including the failure of both his signature Obamacare repeal bill and his immigration ban, Trump has struggled to reach out to other world leaders. Indeed, many European leaders are rattled by his aggressive posture on appropriate defense budgets for the members of NATO.
It is also significant that Obama is visiting Germany at a very interesting time in German-American relations. Trump and Merkel butted heads on the NATO funding issue during the latter’s visit to Washington, D.C., in February. Trump is also extraordinarily unpopular among the German citizenry, while Obama still enjoys tremendous popularity among the majority of the population. Merkel, ever-conscious of Germany’s upcoming federal elections, is likely attempting to squeeze a bit of good grace out of Obama’s visit in an attempt to propel herself forward in the polls.
Although Merkel and Trump have had a rough start to their relationship, the duo will be forced to work together extensively over the next four years. Merkel will likely attend the NATO summit with Trump, after which they will share each other’s company at the Group of 7 talks in Italy and the Group of 20 talks in Germany later this summer. Germany and the United States are two of the world’s great economic engines, and it is often reported that Merkel sees herself and Germany as the protectors of the post-war order, particularly in the age of Trump and spreading economic nationalism across the European Union.
As Merkel stares down the barrel of advancing far-right parties in countries like Great Britain, Austria, the Netherlands, and France, her relationship with Trump grows ever more important and ever more fraught with tension. It is difficult not to see the relationship between the two powerful leaders as a competition of ideologies.
As to where Obama will fit into these relationships, that is still far from clear. As he writes his memoirs and ponders his next move, the relationships between European countries and America, and indeed between America and the rest of the world, are being imperiled. It will be fascinating to see whether or not Obama will look to maintain a public image in this new age of Trump. Barack Obama and Donald Trump will only be a few hundred miles away from one another this May in Europe, but the distance between them feels far greater than that.