By CAROL E. LEE and RUTH BENDER
BERLIN—President Barack Obama warned President-elect Donald Trump to stand up to Russia when necessary as he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel vowed to address the inequities of globalization that propelled the populist tycoon to the White House.
“What unites us is the common conviction that globalization needs to be defined humanely and politically but also that there is not turning back from it,” Ms. Merkel said after the two leaders met for several hours on Thursday.
The chancellor said she would “do everything to establish a good relationship” with Mr. Trump, stressing the importance of the trans-Atlantic relationship as the pillar of Germany’s foreign policy. She said she hoped Germany and the U.S. would continue to share common positions on international issues from climate change to trade deals and the fight against terrorism.
The long-planned talks between the two leaders—Mr. Obama’s sixth visit to Germany as president—have turned into high-stakes strategy sessions on how to maintain the longtime alliance and shared worldview between America and Europe, given that Mr. Trump has put into question a number of the institutions and policies that underpin the postwar world order.
Without Mr. Obama, though, Ms. Merkel could find herself isolated in the effort to push back against Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has militarily intervened in Ukraine and in Syria to back the Assad regime.
Speaking at a joint news conference Thursday, President Obama urged a constructive approach to Russia, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said they are interested in a good relationship. But both leaders said they would maintain economic sanctions. Photo: Getty
Mr. Obama said he hoped Mr. Trump—who has praised Mr. Putin as a strong leader—would take a “constructive” approach to Russia that seeks cooperation. But he warned the president-elect against cutting deals with Mr. Putin out of convenience “even if it violates international norms, or even if it leaves smaller countries vulnerable or creates long-term problems in regions like Syria.”
Mr. Obama said he and the German chancellor also agreed to maintain sanctions on Russia over Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine. They also discussed ways to ease economic inequalities that have resulted from globalization and the need to preserve both the international climate-change agreement reached in Paris last year and the deal to restrain Iran’s nuclear program, he said.
For Mr. Obama, the German chancellor—not someone from his own political party in the U.S.—has become his best hope for redirecting a tide of grass-roots populism has sent shock waves through America and Europe, aides to the president say. The president called Ms. Merkel his closest international partner before leaving for his farewell trip abroad.
“It’s absolutely true that Ms. Merkel will—has had—extraordinary responsibility,” Mr. Obama said of the chancellor, who is expected to see a fourth term next year. “If she chooses to continue, she will have big burdens. I wish I could be there to lighten her road, but she’s tough.”
Ms. Merkel said she felt humbled about the president’s trust. But she is facing her own populist insurgency, leaving some to question whether she will have the bandwidth to take on the role of leader of the internationalist West.
“We can’t replace America in leading the world,” said Josef Braml, an expert on international affairs at think tank German Council on Foreign Relations. “Our task is foremost now to keep our own country together and her agenda is already stretched enough to keep Europe together.”
Hinting that Germany was ready to play a greater role internationally, Ms. Merkel said her country would need to gradually engage more in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. President-elect Trump has questioned whether the U.S. should be committed to defend countries that fail to spend enough on their armed forces, and German military spending is below the benchmark of 2% of gross domestic product that NATO has set for member countries.
“Germany now must play an even greater role when it comes to keeping Europe together,” said lawmaker Rolf Mützenich, a foreign-policy specialist for Germany’s center-left Social Democrats, who are Ms. Merkel’s junior coalition partners. “I don’t think that Ms. Merkel yearns for this role, but she has no other choice.”
Germans are concerned about a Trump presidency. According to a recent poll from research institute Allensbach, 85% of Germans have a negative opinion of Mr. Trump, and 77% a positive one of Mr. Obama. The poll was conducted between Oct. 28 and Nov. 10.
Despite a drop in approval ratings over her open-door migrant policy, opinion surveys suggest Ms. Merkel was still likely to win the general election if she were to run again next year. Still, the country’s refugee crisis, the Brexit vote and now Mr. Trump’s victory have energized Germany’s populists.
After a rocky start between Ms. Merkel and Obama in 2008, the relationship between Washington and Berlin evolved gradually into one of the world’s most important strategic partnerships. Mr. Obama has turned to Ms. Merkel more than any other European leader from the outbreak of the financial crisis to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and defended Ms. Merkel’s controversial refugee policy.
On Friday, Mr. Obama and Ms. Merkel will hold an expanded meeting with the leaders of France, the U.K., Italy and Spain. Mr. Trump will visit Germany next July at the latest, when Germany hosts next year’s summit of the G-20 group of the world’s largest economies.