Mr. Obama has generally tried to stay above the political fray in his nascent post-presidency. But in these charged times, just breaking bread with a world leader can take on a political subtext. It is a tension his advisers recognize, and say they try to mitigate by holding get-togethers at Mr. Obama’s hotel and avoiding the trappings of leader-to-leader meetings.
“We recognize if he goes to a foreign country and meets the leader of that country, there is an interest, given the unusual circumstance we’re in,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, who advised Mr. Obama in the White House and still goes with him on overseas trips. “He’s really trying not to have these be platforms to weigh in on the issues of the day.”
The challenge, Mr. Rhodes acknowledged, is, “How does he do it without looking like the leader of the global progressive resistance?”
The former president’s situation is complicated by the fact that he remains extremely popular in most of the world — starkly contrasting with Mr. Trump — meaning foreign leaders can easily use a meeting with Mr. Obama to their political advantage at home.
Mr. Trudeau lost no time tweeting a picture of himself at dinner with the former president, adding a post, in French and English: “How do we get young leaders to take action in their communities? Thanks @BarackObama for your visit & insights tonight in my hometown.”
Mr. Renzi, whom Mr. Obama feted in his last state dinner at the White House, is plotting his own political comeback after resigning in the wake of a failed Italian referendum last December. During their meeting in Milan, Mr. Renzi suggested they place an impromptu call to another friend of his, Emmanuel Macron, who had just won the French presidency.
Mr. Obama had broken his stay-out-of-politics vow to endorse Mr. Macron. The former president viewed it as “almost an emergency election,” Mr. Rhodes said, given that a victory by France’s far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, would have meant another Western country lost to a populist tide.
The alliance between Mr. Obama and Mr. Macron draws an inevitable contrast to the new French president’s relationship with Mr. Trump. It began in Brussels with a death-grip handshake and continued when Mr. Macron frowned visibly as he watched Mr. Trump scold NATO members for not paying their fair share for the upkeep of the alliance.
In that speech, which came after the two presidents lunched, Mr. Trump also failed to reaffirm America’s commitment to the mutual defense clause in the NATO alliance — although he reversed that stance on Friday. Mr. Trump’s omission in Brussels caught his national security team off guard. One official said the president and his senior adviser, Stephen Miller, tinkered with his remarks after seeing Mr. Macron.
With atmospherics like that, diplomats said, Mr. Obama could not help but be viewed as a kind of antidote. “With Trump’s rude, insulting and destabilizing NATO trip, Obama hardly needs to go out of his way to remind people how disastrous Trump is for the trans-Atlantic alliance,” said Philip H. Gordon, who was assistant secretary for European affairs in the Obama administration. “The comparison is inevitable and, I’m sure, doesn’t bother him.”
For Mr. Obama, the irony is that while he was president, he was criticized for keeping his distance from foreign leaders and not cultivating the kind of friendships that Bill Clinton or the elder George Bush did.
But Mr. Obama did befriend a small circle of mostly European leaders: Mrs. Merkel and Mr. Cameron, and later in his presidency, Mr. Renzi and Mr. Trudeau. His recent meetings, Mr. Rhodes said, have been driven less by political symbolism than by a desire to maintain these friendships.
In the case of Ms. Merkel, Mr. Obama last year accepted her invitation to appear on a panel on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Reformation. Tens of thousands of people gathered at the Brandenburg Gate last month to listen to Mr. Obama praise Ms. Merkel for her “outstanding work, not just here but around the world.”
On his next trip, to South Korea in July, Mr. Obama plans to see Lee Myung-bak, a former president with whom he developed a rapport while in office. But even there, politics could intrude. South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, recently halted the deployment of an American missile-defense battery designed to protect the South from North Korea.
Mr. Trump ruffled feathers during South Korea’s presidential campaign when he demanded that Seoul pay for the system. The next day, his national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, called South Korean officials to clarify that the United States would pay for it.
Over time, Mr. Rhodes predicted, people would lose interest in Mr. Obama’s meetings with foreign leaders. Some Europeans argue that beyond the gauzy symbolism, that is already happening.
“It was nice for the chancellor to have him in Berlin,” said Norbert Röttgen, a foreign affairs expert in Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party. “He is a striking contrast to his successor. But it doesn’t matter at all in the political sense. He is the past.”
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