Obama powerless as more world allies fall to populist voter uprisings
The resignation of Italy’s prime minister Monday marked the abrupt downfall of the third key European partner of President Obama this year, as the president becomes increasingly powerless to confront a populist wave sweeping both sides of the Atlantic and challenging traditional U.S. alliances.
Matteo Renzi’s surrender in Italy came just seven weeks after Mr. Obama toasted the 41-year-old prime minister at a gilded State Dinner at the White House for possessing “the vision and the values that can carry Italy, and Europe, forward.” Mr. Renzi submitted his resignation after Italian voters resoundingly rejected his proposals for political reform in a Sunday referendum that became a judgment on Mr. Renzi and his internationalist stance.
Less than a week earlier, French President Francois Hollande — another key partner with Mr. Obama on issues such as fighting the Islamic State — announced he would not seek re-election. He was battling low approval ratings, high unemployment and a rising tide of conservative and populist forces.
Mr. Hollande’s announcement came
less than six months after British Prime Minister David Cameron resigned in the wake of British voters’ decision to leave the European Union. Mr. Obama had traveled to London before the referendum and urged the British people to remain in the EU, to no avail.
Even for Mr. Obama’s supporters, the speed at which his foreign partnerships are crumbling has been breathtaking. Some of them wonder, as similar populist sentiment in the U.S. swept Donald Trump to power, whether Mr. Obama is presiding over the disintegration of alliances that have provided the foundation of U.S. diplomacy since the end of World War II.
“I do worry about the future of the West. I worry about the future of the trans-Atlantic relationship,” said Julianne Smith, a former national security official in the Obama administration who is now an analyst at the Center for New American Security. “These winds are blowing across the European continent, and there’s only so much we can really do.”
The last of Mr. Obama’s top European partners who is still standing, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is expected to face a difficult re-election bid as she seeks a fourth term next year. The challenge facing her was underscored Monday as fresh anger erupted in Germany over Ms. Merkel’s “open door” asylum policy after the rape and murder of a 19-year-old medical student, allegedly at the hands of an Afghan refugee.
Rather than working to save his foreign friends, Mr. Obama actually has contributed to their collapses by publicly embracing their positions on issues such as Brexit, said Daniel Hannan, a conservative who represents Britain in the European Parliament.
“He flew over to London in the middle of the referendum, and he told us in no uncertain terms that we should do as we were told and vote to stay in the EU,” Mr. Hannan said Monday in an address at The Heritage Foundation. “And I have to say, it did have an immediate and tangible impact. There were four opinion polls published the next week, and they all showed a significant swing to vote ‘leave.’”
Mr. Hannan, a leader of the Brexit movement, said British voters weren’t reacting to Mr. Obama interfering but to his perceived hypocrisy.
“People objected to the idea that he was advancing, for us, advice that we knew his countrymen would never take,” Mr. Hannan said. “He was pushing policies toward Britain that Americans would never tolerate. He may have been the person who helped to push us across the line.”
He said the defeat of Mr. Renzi’s referendum in Italy was motivated by similar dissatisfaction over promises that the EU would bring prosperity and trouble-free border crossings throughout the eurozone — the so-called Schengen area in which 26 EU nations abolished passports and other border controls.
“It does show how difficult it is for the people who are implicated in the failure and the stagnation of the old policies in the eurozone to win any elections,” Mr. Hannan said. “Just as the debt crisis exposed the weaknesses of the single currency, so the migration crisis has pitilessly exposed the weaknesses of Schengen.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Europeans who are frustrated by the economy are “looking for answers.” But he cautioned against reading too much into the similarity of election results in Britain, Italy and even the U.S.
“Each of these is different,” he said. “You’re talking about different constituencies.”
Mr. Earnest said Mr. Obama has offered the best solution to voters’ anger — more government spending on programs to provide better economic opportunity.
“The president has made the point, on a number of occasions, that policymakers need to be focused on expanding economic growth and looking for ways to drive that growth, both by investing in the citizens of their country, but also in making investments in local markets to try to spur that economic growth that’d be good for the global economy,” he said.
Alberto Mingardi, executive director of the Italian free market think-tank Istituto Bruno Leoni, said comparisons to the Brexit vote are overblown and that Mr. Renzi lost on his own merits.
“It became a referendum on him,” Mr. Mingardi said. “Public service had not improved, and he had a very lax approach to public finance.”
But he said there is a similarity to Brexit involving “the fear of triggering financial turbulence” in the banking sector.
Ms. Smith said the populist sentiment sweeping Europe and the U.S. spells trouble not only for the EU but possibly for NATO. And she said the election results overseas show the limits of presidential power in Washington.
“The lesson we’ve learned is that the United States has very little leverage, irrespective of who sits in the Oval Office, over what happens in some of these political referendums,” she said. “We were fairly empty-handed, sadly. The president chose to be very active in the case of the Brexit referendum, went over and gave one of the most compelling speeches, did far more than any other European leader … and it was all for naught.”
Especially with Mr. Trump preparing to take power, she expressed concern about the future of longstanding U.S. alliances.
“People don’t really care as much anymore about the liberal order,” she said. “It certainly calls into question the utility of all the alphabet soup of institutions that make it up. Europeans having severe doubts about the utility of the European Union. People fundamentally do not have faith in this institution. It’s a little terrifying for those of us who have dedicated our lives to this. It’s been a bipartisan principle of U.S. policy for decades. We wanted the EU to be created.”
Italian Premier Matteo Renzi acknowledged defeat and announced his resignation after Italians voted Sunday against a referendum on constitutional reforms, on which Mr. Renzi had staked his political fortunes.
Embattled French President Francois Hollande announced he will not seek re-election.