President Obama’s Final European Trip: The Transatlantic Partnership in Anticipation of the Transition
November 14, 2016
After a tumultuous and exhausting election campaign with an unexpected outcome, the United States’ international partners have turned quickly to the next administration’s policies, new personnel, and transition plans. Perhaps less noticed will be President Barack Obama’s visit this week to Germany and Greece, his last overseas journey in office, which will attempt to place the election of Donald Trump into historic context, as well as shore up the faltering confidence of transatlantic democratic systems for the coming months and beyond. The transatlantic community must address manifest problems—fractiousness and declining faith in institutions and a collapsing political center that has driven political parties to move to the far left and right. Although every country must uniquely address its political and economic flaws and challenges, the U.S. election campaign also demonstrated that the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of democracies can be exploited by adversaries, such as Russia, to influence our democratic processes and institutions—efforts Moscow likely will repeat elsewhere in numerous European elections. Sharing expertise to close these gaps should be a focus of the president’s trip, along with security, the economy, and counterterrorism.
As the president meets in Berlin with the leaders of Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and Italy, the experience of our election will be on everyone’s mind, and the implications for our allies and friends in Europe are clear. The United States has just completed a cycle marked by blatant Russian interference in the U.S. democratic process, something so unprecedented and troubling that U.S. intelligence agencies publicly fingered the Russian state as responsible. This is not Russia’s first attempt to influence Western democratic processes, and it is unlikely to be the last. U.S. ally Bulgaria just completed a presidential election, with the winner citing President-elect Trump in calling for better relations between Sofia and Moscow. Austria will elect a president next month, and Italy will hold a crucial constitutional referendum this year, while our allies in the Netherlands, France, and Germany have national elections in 2017.
Russia sees interests at stake: weakening the European Union and NATO; promoting politicians who favor a softer line toward Moscow; undermining the European security order that has prevailed since the collapse of communism; and trying to persuade the Russian population that Western democracy is rigged, chaotic, and ineffective, so that Russia’s citizens should not view it as a model. The Netherlands voted in an April 2016 referendum to reject the EU association agreement with Ukraine; although the vote was nonbinding and less than one-third of citizens turned out, Russia may see the March 2017 parliamentary election as a chance to promote the fortunes of far-right Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders. In France, far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who has financed her party with loans from Russian sources and takes a variety of pro-Putin stances, likely will be one of the two candidates making it into the final round of the May 2017 presidential election. She advocates French withdrawal from the European Union and promises to recognize Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. Germany will hold elections to the Bundestag in the fall of 2017, and Kremlin-controlled media have attempted to stir up opposition to Chancellor Angela Merkel, the de facto leader of Europe, while the far-right Alternative for Germany party cultivates ties with Vladimir Putin’s political movement.
There is certainly more at work in European politics than Russia’s influence, just as Russia’s interference in the U.S. election was only one factor in a larger upheaval that was already underway before information hacked by Russia from Democratic Party organizations and officials was publicized by WikiLeaks. Meeting the political challenges in Europe requires honesty about what does and does not work in European institutions and greater creativity in reforming the European Union to ensure that citizens’ concerns about their future are reflected in national politics and in Brussels. The domestic origins of these sentiments make potential Russian subversion no less of a danger. Victory by anti-European, anti-transatlantic parties, and the fall of Chancellor Merkel in particular, if Russia could help it happen, would be seen in Moscow as a triumph. It is ominous that one of the same Russian spy services implicated in the hacking and release of Democratic National Committee information—the Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye (GRU) military intelligence organization, also known as “Fancy Bear” in cyber circles—was also identified by multiple cybersecurity firms and German officials as attacking the German Bundestag and officials of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party. It is not hard to imagine Russia’s attempting to try to leak information selectively to sow confusion and influence the election; the U.S. experience strongly suggests we should expect it. Chancellor Merkel acknowledged last Tuesday that Russian meddling in Germany’s election was a possibility; Russia already has tried to spread falsified information to stir up demonstrations in Berlin related to the migration crisis. Germany’s cabinet approved a new cybersecurity strategy on November 9 that specifically identifies cyber attacks, disinformation, and manipulation of public opinion as a threat.
What should President Obama, with only 10 weeks left in office, and the leaders of Europe’s four most powerful countries do concretely when they meet next week, and how can the president usefully address the challenge before the transatlantic community when he visits Athens, the birthplace of democracy? The meeting in Berlin provides an ideal opportunity—after the U.S. election and far enough in advance of key European plebiscites—for them to identify the danger publicly and to intensify cooperation among U.S. and European intelligence and law enforcement authorities to protect our democratic systems and to identify possible Russian attempts to subvert them. This should include not only expanded intelligence sharing on cyber attacks and the methods of Russian disinformation, but also cooperation on investigation of related financial flows.
While in Greece, the president will have the backdrop of Athens to broaden the discussion. He naturally will devote attention to the migration crisis, a burden borne disproportionately by Greece (and increasingly by Italy). This is only one of the crises rattling Europe and weakening public confidence in national and European institutions. How Europe resolves these crises has a direct impact on the United States, because we are each other’s partner of first resort and our closest international relationship—that is unlikely to change.
The president’s visit to Germany and Greece more broadly should articulate how U.S. and transatlantic interests will be affected by a fragmenting Europe, beset by popular discontent with national and European institutions, the looming dislocation of Brexit, and challenges ranging from migration to Russian aggression in Ukraine, to threats against NATO allies to whom we are treaty bound. There is great uncertainty about the policies of a Trump administration, but regardless, the United States’ and Europe’s futures are intertwined and the domestic and international security challenges we face are increasing. The more time that is spent finding joint solutions, the more resilient the transatlantic relationship and our democracies will be.
Jeffrey Rathke is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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