The people of the world are living in the most “peaceful and prosperous era in human history,” US President Barack Obama said Monday during a landmark speech in the German city of Hannover.
“I want to begin with an observation that, given the challenges that we face in the world and the headlines we see every day, may seem improbable but it’s true. We are fortunate to be living in the most peaceful, most prosperous, most progressive era in human history,” he said.
“If you had to choose a moment in time to be born, any time in human history, and you didn’t know ahead of time what nationality you were or what gender or what your economic status might be, you’d choose today,” the president said, highlighting an increase in democracies across the world, and improving global health and education standards. He cautioned, however, that this “isn’t to say that there is not still enormous suffering and enormous tragedy and so much work for us to do.”
Some of that work, presumably, surrounds efforts to end the bloody civil war in Syria, which has taken more than a quarter of a million lives in the past five years.
Obama said that he would ask the heads of Germany, Britain, France and Italy to step up their training and airstrike contributions to the campaign against the Islamic State group, and to provide more economic aid to rebuild parts of Iraq recaptured from IS.
“Europe and NATO can still do more,” he said. “We need to do everything in our power to stop them.”
“Europe has sometimes been complacent about its own defense,” Obama said, repeating a longstanding call for NATO allies to increase defense spending to at least two percent of economic output.
The president also made an impassioned plea for European unity in the face of rising populism and skepticism, warning this was a “defining moment” for the Continent.
“A strong and united Europe is a necessity for the world,” Obama said, shortly before meeting the other leaders.
Visiting a region reeling from a migration crisis and economic stagnation and facing the prospect of Britain abandoning the European Union, Obama warned that “progress is not inevitable.”
Contrasting the prosperity of Europe today with the wars and hardship of the last century, Obama called on Europeans to reject the “us-versus-them” politics that has fueled the rise of the far right in countries from Poland to France.
“Perhaps you need an outsider, somebody who is not European, to remind you of the magnitude of what you have achieved,” he said, a day after the anti-immigration far-right triumphed in a presidential vote in Austria.
Hours before he and Chancellor Angela Merkel were to hold talks with their British, Italian and French counterparts, Obama painted today’s Europeans as heirs to the popular movements that ended the Cold War.
And he also recalled the devastating consequences of “intolerance and extreme nationalism” that drenched Europe in blood during the 20th century.
“In the last century, just twice in 30 years, the forces of empire and intolerance and extreme nationalism consumed this continent and cities like this one were largely reduced to rubble,” Obama said.
“Tens of millions of men and women and children were killed.”
Don’t turn inward
While admitting there could be frustrations with European institutions, he argued that “turning inward” was not the answer to Europe’s problems.
As right-wing populism gains ground in parts of the Continent in response to growing Islamic radicalism, he urged Europe to remain open.
“I want you to remember that our countries are stronger, they’re more secure and more successful when we integrate people of all backgrounds and faiths, and make them feel as one. And that includes our fellow citizens who are Muslim,” he said.
On a visit to Britain ahead of his arrival in Germany, the US president had also waded into an increasingly bitter debate over the UK’s membership in the European Union, urging Britons to vote against leaving the bloc in a June referendum.
Pushing forward US-EU trade
Obama stressed the need for European nations not only to work together but to work with Washington to tackle a host of challenges, from Syria and Iraq to global trade and climate change.
And he said he would send up to 250 more special forces military trainers to Syria to help rebels fighting Islamic State jihadists.
His remarks came as Europe scrambles to try and limit the refugee flow into the bloc and the bloodshed in Syria.
As he arrived in Germany on Sunday, Obama made a strong pitch for US-EU trade.
“Angela and I agree that the United States and the European Union need to keep moving forward with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations,” said Obama of the vast EU-US trade agreement in the making which has run into strong public opposition.
He called for the agreement to be sealed before the end of the year, even though tens of thousands marched through Hannover on the eve of his visit to protest against the treaty amid fears it would erode protection for workers and consumers.
Both Obama and Merkel say the pact will provide a shot in the arm to Western economies.