Obama world al­lies fall to pop­ulist voter up­ris­ings

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY DAVE BOYER

The res­ig­na­tion of Italy’s prime min­is­ter last week 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 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 tran­sAt­lantic 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 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 FRANCERANCE GER­MANY ITALY 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 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.”

Cameron Fran­cois Hol­lande David An­gela Merkel Mat­teo Renzi,

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