ATHENS — President Barack Obama traveled to the birthplace of democracy on Wednesday to praise the concept as a great Greek invention and to remind listeners of its burden — living with the outcome of an election, even when you don’t agree with it.
“The next American president and I could not be more different,” Obama told an audience here in Athens. “But American democracy is bigger than any one person.”
Democracy contains a mechanism to correct mistakes, he said, but he argued that citizens must participate.
When Obama originally conceived of this democracy speech in Athens, he imagined it would come on the heels of Hillary Clinton’s election as president — a confirmation of his vision for global democracy. Instead, he is making way for President-elect Donald Trump, a new leader of the free world who won election by excoriating Obama’s democratic worldview.
As a result, Obama instead defended his view — that open markets and democratic societies offer the best hope for human progress, and that an integrated global economy should be embraced even if its current iteration needs a course correction to share its benefits with more people.
As illustrations, Obama ticked off some of his greatest global hits, achievements that will survive only at the will of the Trump administration.
During his stewardship, Obama said, he and other world leaders shut down the Iranian nuclear weapons program “without ever firing a shot.”
He opened the doors to Cuba, ending years of a Cold War-era diplomatic freeze. His administration supported Myanmar’s path to democracy. And under his guidance, Obama noted, the U.S. joined nearly 200 other nations in an ambitious international agreement to save our planet from climate change.
Obama’s new world order has been on the ropes in recent months, especially here in Europe. The British prime minister left office after his country voted against his counsel to pull out of the European Union, the sort of international institution Obama has promoted. The Italian prime minister, an Obama ally, faces a test to his leadership ahead of a national referendum he called next month to implement constitutional reforms.
“There’s a serious challenge to European institutions right now,” said Jeffrey Rathke, deputy director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The leaders of the EU all recognize that Europe needs reform, needs to reconnect with its citizens. But I don’t think a terribly compelling set of solutions that has emerged yet.”
That has resulted in a particular resentment of governing elites, opening the way for populists and nationalists across Europe.
But in what will probably prove to be his final presidential address on the global stage, Obama urged against the impulse to pull back from the globalized world. Understandable though the instinct may be, he said, it won’t work.
“Given the nature of technology, it is my assertion that it’s not possible to cut ourselves off from each other,” he said.
He urged against severing the connections “that have enabled so much progress and so much wealth” and for finding ways to spread prosperity more equally.
In an ever-more-integrated global economy, and with rapid advances in technology and automation, there have been “enormous disruptions” in many communities, taking away jobs, depressing wages and weakening the leverage of organized labor, Obama said.
At the same time, the rich and powerful can appear to be “gaming the system,” feeding “a profound sense of injustice” and inequality that “constitutes one of the greatest challenges to our economies and our democracies,” Obama said.
“The best hope for human progress remains open markets, combined with democracy and human rights. But I argued that the current path of globalization demands a course correction,” Obama said. “In the years and decades ahead, our countries have to make sure that the benefits of an integrated global economy are more broadly shared by more people.”
In the end, what might have been Obama’s triumphant tour for his sophisticated idea of democracy instead became a reminder of the basics of the ancient Greeks.
When your side loses, you accept the decision of the people, he said, vowing to do all he could to enable a smooth transition to the Trump era.
“Because,” he said, “that’s how democracy has to work.”