MUNICH — Diplomatic events are always made smoother by a touch of ambiguity. But at this year’s Munich Security Conference, the annual gathering of the the transatlantic alliance, the ambiguity shaded into something a little weirder. Speaker after speaker called for unity and cohesion in the face of the grave dangers facing the Western alliance. But nobody could quite bring themselves to say the truth out loud: that one of the gravest dangers facing the Western alliance is the president of the United States.
Unless you knew that to be the case, the whole weekend would have been mystifying. Sen. John McCain made an eloquent and moving plea not just for Western security, but for Western ideals. He deplored the “increasing turn away from universal values and toward old ties of blood and race and sectarianism” and the “growing inability to separate truth from lies.” He declared that the founders of the Munich conference, back in 1963, would be “alarmed that more and more of our fellow citizens seem to be flirting with authoritarianism and romanticizing it as our moral equivalent.”
What exactly was he talking about? He never uttered the name “Trump” — but everyone in the room knew what he meant. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, barely spoke of the American president either, but her speech had a similar structure. The world’s problems are interconnected, she explained, which is why no nation can solve them alone. She dwelled on the value of multilateral institutions — the United Nations, the European Union, NATO — and noted that caring for refugees and development aid also contribute to international security, and she let the audience draw conclusions.
Strangest of all, though, were the remarks of the American vice president. On the surface, they were an entirely conventional restatement of American commitment to Europe, even including the requisite personal anecdote about a long-ago visit to a divided Berlin. Mike Pence repeatedly declared that he was bringing reassurance “on behalf of President Trump”: “The United States strongly supports NATO and will not waver in our commitment to our transatlantic alliance.” He also spoke of shared values, our “noble ideals — freedom, democracy, justice and the rule of law.” But those banal words were rendered enigmatic and mysterious by the problem that could not be named. Sure, mumbled someone standing next to me at the back of the crowded room, “all of that’s true until the guy’s next tweet.”
Or his next rally. As if perfectly scripted to complement Pence’s Saturday morning speech, Trump railed against Europe on Saturday evening. The United States needs to be kept safe, because “when you look at what’s happening in Germany, when you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden — Sweden! Who would believe this? Sweden!” Except that nothing had happened in Sweden at all. On Sunday morning in Munich, the former Swedish foreign minister was accepting “condolences” from laughing colleagues.
For the moment, the new administration has bought itself time. At least in public, most European leaders have decided to believe Pence, or at least to take his words, and those of James Mattis, Rex Tillerson and others, at face value. They note, correctly, that all of the military decisions taken by the Obama administration are proceeding as planned. In January, the largest deployment of U.S. troops since the Cold War arrived in Germany, part of an operation designed to reassure the eastern flank of NATO and to deter Russian aggression. Most of the larger NATO allies, including Germany, have already begun to enlarge their military spending, and some are deploying troops in more eastern positions too.
The precarious feeling of uncertainty will nonetheless persist, at least until U.S. authority, in Europe or anywhere else, is seriously challenged. And there are signs that a challenge is coming. In the past few days, the Russian government has recognized passports from the phony “republics” that Russian-armed, Russian-controlled “separatists” have created in eastern Ukraine — perhaps, as one Russian official suggested, as a prelude to granting them Russian passports or even annexing the territories outright. Russian planes repeatedly buzzed a U.S. destroyer on patrol in the Black Sea. Most ominously, Russia has reportedly deployed a new generation of cruise missiles, a move that violates existing arms treaties and could make it easier for Russian bombs to reach European capitals.
There is no reason to think that these small “tests” will not be repeated. And if any one of them explodes into something worse, then talk of “shared values” will not help. Nor will repeated reassurances from Cabinet members. At some point, the enforced ambiguity will fall away, it will not be possible to disguise reality with “Swedish incidents” and we will learn what the president actually believes. I just hope that we are all prepared.