Speaking to reporters in Athens today, President Barack Obama warned that Americans and people around the world “are going to have to guard against a rise in a crude sort of nationalism, or ethnic identity, or tribalism” taking root amid the populist movements that are gaining currency around the world.
Speaking at a joint conference with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras by his side, Obama refrained from criticizing President-elect Donald Trump directly as he discussed the impact of his electoral victory last week. But the president made it clear that he sees a dark side to the kind of populist movements Trump’s campaign embodied – ideals that other conservative leaders are advocating in Europe and elsewhere.
“We are going to have to guard against a rise in a crude sort of nationalism, or ethnic identity or tribalism that is built around an us and a them, and I will never apologize for saying that the future of humanity and the future of the world is going to be defined by what we have in common, as opposed to those things that separate us and ultimately lead us into conflict,” Obama said.
“Take Europe,” he continued. “We know what happens when Europeans start dividing themselves up and emphasizing their differences and seeing a competition between various countries in a zero sum way. The 20th-century was a bloodbath.”
Obama, who made it clear during the course of the hour-long news conference that he did not view the recent U.S. election results as a referendum on his own tenure or world vision, suggested that targeting specific racial, religious ethnic groups could backfire.
“In the United States we know what happens when we start dividing ourselves along the lines of race or religion or ethnicity. It is dangerous. It is dangerous, not just for the minority groups that are subjected to that kind of discrimination or in some cases in the past violence, but because we then don’t realize our potential as a country when we are preventing blacks or Latinos or Asians or gays or women from fully participating in the project of building American life,” he said.
“So my vision is right on that issue, and it may not always win the day in the short term in any particularly political circumstance, but I am confident it will win the day in the long term,” Obama added. “Because societies which are able to unify ourselves around values and ideals and character, and how we treat each other, and cooperation and innovation, ultimately are going to be more successful than societies that don’t.”
The president suggested that a number of factors contributed to Trump’s win, including the personalities involved in the race, “how campaigns are run” and voters’ “natural inclinations for change.”
But he acknowledged that there was a common theme in the recent U.S. presidential election, Britain’s vote several months ago to leave the European Union, and other populist movements elsewhere.
“Globalization, combined with technology, combined with social media and constant information, have disrupted people’s lives, sometimes in very concrete ways,” he said, adding later, “They might opt for change, even if they’re not entirely confident what that change will bring.”
Obama had hoped that his visit to Europe would reassure America’s allies as he prepared to leave office. But it has been dominated by questions over what a Trump presidency means for the long-standing trans-Atlantic alliance.
Tsipras, for his part, thanked Obama for his support over the years and said he was hopeful the U.S.-Greece alliance would remain unchanged.
While there is “fear” that things could change next year, Tsipras said, “What we should be doing is build bridges, not walls.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Juliet Eilperin