Although his speech hit all the right (if predictable) notes, the European officials here at the Munich Security Conference seem far from reassured. The reception to Pence’s remarks was cool and one senior European official openly criticized him on Twitter. The lack of specifics in Pence’s remarks left many in the room continuing to wonder whether the Trump administration will really maintain U.S. leadership in defending the Western values-based world order that was established after World War II.
Pence’s comments on issues such as counterterrorism and the threat of Iran were met with only scattered applause, leaving the impression that his speech was better suited for a domestic American audience than a room of European officials more concerned about the Trump administration’s criticisms of Europe and NATO and the president’s plans to seek better relations with Russia.
“Today, on behalf of President Trump, I bring you this assurance. The United States of America strongly supports NATO and will be unwavering in our commitment to our transatlantic alliance,” Pence said. “We have been faithful for generations — and as you keep faith with us, under President Trump we will always keep faith with you.”
Pence promised that the Trump administration would increase defense spending and called on NATO allies to increase their spending as well, a message echoed by other Trump administration officials in Europe this week, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
‘The president of the United States expects our allies to keep their word, fulfill this commitment and for most that means the time has come to do more,” Pence said.
On Russia, Pence said that Moscow must honor its commitments regarding Ukraine under the Minsk agreement, but he didn’t say anything about the future of U.S. sanctions on Russia or Russian interference in U.S. or European politics.
“Know this: The United States will continue to hold Russia accountable, even as we search for new common ground, which as you know, President Trump believes can be found,” he said.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault publicly criticized Pence’s speech in real time on Twitter: “In Munich, Vice President Pence renewed the U.S. commitment to the Atlantic alliance. But not a word about the EU.”
One European diplomat told me he was encouraged that Pence “underlined the historical roots of our alliance.” Others said that Pence offered no real policies that would give Europeans concrete reason to feel reassured about the Trump administration.
One member of the U.S. delegation summed up Pence’s dilemma. Pence genuinely wanted to reassure Europeans that the United States was committed to NATO and the transatlantic alliance. But the administration has articulated no real policies beyond demanding NATO allies pay more for defense, so Pence had no substance to offer beyond what Trump has already said.
“Everything Pence said was right, but he only said the bare minimum and we shouldn’t be giving ourselves medals for saying the bare minimum,” the U.S. delegation member said.
The large congressional delegation in Munich is also struggling to communicate the Trump administration’s intentions to European officials. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) gave an impassioned speech to the conference Friday that was interpreted as a clear rebuke of Trump’s worldview. Congressional aides said McCain was simply laying out his own beliefs, not trying to publicly contradict Trump.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told me he doesn’t know what the administration’s positions are and so it’s difficult for the congressional delegation to represent them to the European officials in meetings. Pence’s speech didn’t add any clarity and therefore didn’t help much, he said.
“There’s a distance between Pence’s speech and what the Europeans are hearing from the president that’s hard to reconcile. The speech was good but there wasn’t anything to latch on to,” Murphy said. “Pence is trying, so there’s some real effort to reassure our allies. But they need more than words.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in her speech just before Pence, said that the old world order was ending and that Europe would have to provide more for its own defense and prepare to play a more independent role in a multi-polar power structure. She said a more dangerous world required more effort to bolster multilateral structures, not less. The crowd cheered her message.
The crowd also cheered McCain, who said that the founders of the Munich Security Conference would be alarmed that some Americans “are giving up on the West, that they see it as a bad deal that we may be better off without, and that while Western nations still have the power to maintain our world order, it’s unclear whether we have the will.”
Pence seems to believe in maintaining that order but nobody knows if Trump feels the same way. His vague assurances are only the first, small step the administration will have to take if it wishes to undo the damage Trump’s comments have done to European confidence in America’s leadership.