President Obama will arrive in Northern Ireland Monday morning — the first stop on a three-day European visit that includes a G-8 summit and a side-trip to Berlin.
The president will begin his tour with a speech in Belfast, where he’ll celebrate Northern Ireland’s peace process, and urge young people in the country to keep it moving forward.
Later, Obama joins leaders of other industrial countries at a remote golf resort in County Fermanagh for talks on Syria, trade and the global economy.
The G-8 leaders have a working dinner Monday night and Syria is likely to dominate the discussion. Obama will explain his decision to start sending military aid to the Syrian opposition.
The move’s being welcomed by Britain and France.
Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes notes those countries pushed hard to lift a European arms embargo, clearing the way to send weapons to the rebels.
“They have shared our positions generally on Syria. They’ve been part of the core group of 11 countries in the Middle East and in Europe that have worked together to strengthen the Syrian opposition,” he said.
But not all the G8 countries are in favor of arming the opposition. Germany is skeptical. And Russia — a longtime ally of the Syrian regime — is strongly opposed.
Obama has a one-on-one meeting Monday afternoon with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Rhodes says he’ll try to persuade the Russian leader that ousting President Bashar Assad is the best way to prevent a downward spiral in Syria.
“It’s in Russia’s interest to join us in applying pressure on Bashar al Assad to come to the table in a way that relinquishes his power and his standing in Syria. Because we don’t see any scenario in which he restores his legitimacy to lead the country,” Rhodes said.
The president’s meeting with Putin follows the opening session of the G8 summit, which will be devoted as in years past to the struggling global economy. The eurozone now seems in less danger of breaking apart than it did when these leaders met last year at Camp David. But much of Europe is still mired in recession, and the jobless picture in the U.S. is improving slowly.
Matthew Goodman, a former White House coordinator for the G8, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says look for lots of conversation about how to get the global economy moving faster.
“Relative to last year, things are somewhat better,” he said. “Growth is still very important to the U.S. and to everybody around that table.”
Britain, Germany and the U.S. all see boosting exports as one route to faster growth. British Prime Minister David Cameron — who’s hosting this summit — wants to formally launch negotiations over a trans-Atlantic trade agreement.
On Friday, members of the European Union gave their blessing to talks designed to whittle away at trade barriers between the U.S. and Europe. But they left a carve-out for cultural protectionism. France in particular has long tried to shelter its domestic movie and TV industries, so the French airwaves aren’t further overrun with the likes of CSI-NY.
That cultural carve-out by the Europeans could prompt the U.S. to defend its own protectionist programs — including “Buy American” requirements for many government purchases.
But White House adviser Caroline Atkinson, who will be at Obama’s side for much of the summit, says that’s not the way the United States wants the trade talks to go.
“We’ve made clear that we’re very much in support of a broad and comprehensive negotiation. We understand of course that both sides have sensitivities,” Atkinson said.
Obama is also likely to face questions from his G-8 colleagues about the U.S. National Security Agency’s newly-revealed surveillance programs which cast a wide net over telephone and Internet traffic. Residents of G-8 countries have undoubtedly been snared by that net.
And White House advisor Rhodes acknowledges that’s hit a nerve with some G-8 leaders.
“We certainly understand that like the United States, countries in Europe have significant interest in privacy and civil liberties. So we’ll want to hear their questions and have an exchange,” he said.
Obama will have more to say about liberty and security in Germany later in the week. He’s set to speak on the east side of the Brandenburg Gate, 50 years after John F. Kennedy famously declared his solidarity with the citizens of Berlin.