Barack Obama’s trip to Europe this week was supposed to be a kind of victory lap. His plan was to start out in Athens, the birthplace of democracy, and claim a place for himself within the political lineage that began in Greece some 2,500 years ago. The White House had even scoped out the perfect venue for his last big speech on foreign soil–a plateau of ruins known as the Pnyx, near the western slope of the Acropolis, where the ancient Athenians once gathered to engage in the business of self-rule. But things did not turn out as planned.
Exactly a week before Obama’s arrival in Athens on Nov. 15, the election victory of Donald Trump forced the President to rethink his European agenda. Instead of reveling in the continuity that Hillary Clinton’s victory would have represented, Obama had to reassure the world, and especially U.S. allies in Europe, that American democracy would not falter under President Trump.
The White House also settled on a far humbler venue: a concrete-and-glass theater complex at the edge of town and with no ancient ruins in sight. It did, however, have the advantage of security. Anti-globalization groups, mostly communists and anarchists, had announced plans to welcome Obama with a series of protests, and thousands of them marched in the city center on the day of his arrival, filling the Exarchia neighborhood with the smell of dumpster fires and tear gas.
Even without these distractions, Obama had his work cut out for him. “One of the messages I will be able to deliver is [Trump’s] commitment to NATO and the transatlantic alliance,” he told reporters before heading to Europe on Tuesday. But the only evidence he had to demonstrate that commitment was the private conversation Obama had with the Trump last week in the Oval Office, and such hearsay was not enough to put NATO leaders at ease.
Among the skeptics was Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who served as the secretary general of the alliance from 2004 to 2009. “I was rather surprised that the incumbent President Obama, apparently, was mandated by the President-elect to make [these] remarks about NATO,” he told a conference call organized that evening by the Atlantic Council, a policy institute in Washington. “I think that’s a bit odd, quite honestly,” he added. “I would like to hear this from President-elect Trump.”
And Trump has not publicly said any such thing. On the contrary, he has repeatedly swatted away the rather desperate efforts of European allies to convince him of the value of NATO, both to American security and to global stability. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who led the alliance as secretary general from 2009 to 2014, said during Tuesday’s conference call that, “some time ago,” he had sent Trump a copy of his book, The Will to Lead: America’s Indispensable Role in the Global Fight for Freedom, which was published in September. “He hasn’t reacted yet,” Rasmussen said. “But it’s my clear view that we need determined global American leadership.”
Obama clearly shares that view. Yet even as he sought to placate the fears of his European audience, he did not dismiss their fears as unfounded. “Progress follows a winding path,” he said in his speech, “sometimes forward, sometimes back. But as long as we retain our faith in democracy, as long as we retain our faith in the people, as long as we don’t waiver from the central principles that ensure a lively, open debate, then our future will be OK.” Though it wasn’t exactly the image of a shining city on a hill, it may have been the best that Obama could promise under the circumstances.
Over the past year or so, the crisis of faith in Western democracies has grown too severe for rosy predictions. Right-wing populists have reached the top of the polls in France and Austria. Nativists forces against immigration drove the British vote in June to leave the European Union. And regardless of its heritage, Greece is hardly an exception to this trend. Its political system was among the first to come unglued as the Great Recession spread through Europe, decimating the economy and bringing fringe parties into the mainstream.
Its government is now run by a far-left movement called Syriza, which rose to power last year from the margins of Greek politics, calling on voters to evict the corrupt elites, ignore the biased media and reject the forces of globalization. By now that political platform would sound familiar to many Europeans and, especially since last week, to most Americans. So if the history of Greece calls to mind the birth of Western democracy, Greek reality feels, at best, like part of its midlife crisis.
On Wednesday Obama admitted as much. He warned that this crisis would risk the return of “the darker forces that exist in all our societies”–the nationalism, the chauvinism and the desire to put up walls. “History does not move in a straight line,” he said. But eventually, “There will be people, generation after generation, who have the will and courage to bend the arc of our lives in the direction of a better future.”
It was a hopeful note for him to end on. But it also suggested a couple of questions that Obama has probably wondered himself: How long will the present detour in the history of liberal democracy take? And where will it lead before its over?