The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Trump administration is missing in action in Europe

National security adviser H.R. McMaster speaks at the Munich Security Conference in Germany on Saturday. (Sven Hoppe/AP)

This post has been updated, 1:40 p.m.

More than a year into the Trump administration, the crucial relationship between the United States and western European democracies is adrift. The United States’ failure to lead the way forward for the transatlantic alliance was on full display last weekend in Germany.

At the Munich Security Conference, the premier annual European diplomatic confab, there was a clear mission: to reinvigorate the very U.S. alliance with European democracies the conference was invented to defend after World War II. Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist, a German officer who participated in the plot to kill Adolf Hitler, founded the annual meeting in 1963 to promote the alliance, the liberal international order and the values that underpin it.

But at this year’s event, the United States’ presence was scaled down. Even when U.S. officials spoke, they failed to reassure nervous allies that the Trump administration had their back. More consequentially, the Trump administration also failed to present a forward-looking vision for U.S.-Europe relations or propose real solutions to shared problems.

The Trump administration’s attendance — or lack thereof — spoke volumes. Most years, the U.S. secretaries of state or defense (or both) address the conference. Last year, Vice President Pence and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis delivered keynote addresses meant to reassure nervous allies worried about President Trump’s campaign rhetoric.

This year, zero Cabinet-level Trump administration officials gave a keynote address. Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo were in the hotel but only for private meetings. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson literally flew over Germany on his way back from Turkey, but didn’t bother to stop, dispatching his deputy in his place.

“The United States was in many ways missing in action at Wehrkunde,” said former U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder, using the original German name for the conference. “The decision by Mattis not to speak was in some ways worse than him not showing up.”

National security adviser H.R. McMaster delivered the lone Trump administration speech, in which he made news by calling Russian interference in America’s 2016 election “incontrovertible” following special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s indictment of 13 Russians and three companies. The impact of that declaration was diluted when Trump undermined McMaster in a tweet only hours later.

Many attendees noted what McMaster didn’t say. He didn’t offer a strategy to combat Russian meddling or a plan to strengthen the Western liberal order in the face of a rollback of democratic values and the rise of European populism.

“The United States is no longer trying to solve problems in Europe or with Europe,” said Daalder. “Is anyone looking to Washington for a solution? And to the extent we are offering solutions, they are negative.”

Some European officials at the conference pushed back against the Trump administration’s mantra demanding their governments spend 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense. Others defended plans for the European Union to develop it’s own common defense, a project U.S. and NATO officials are watching warily.

There are some good developments in the Trump administration’s Europe policy. The administration has increased defense support under the European Reassurance Initiative, begun under the Obama administration. The State Department now has a confirmed assistant secretary for Europe, Wess Mitchell, who is well-respected by allies.

But there’s still no clarity on how the Trump administration views the European Union and no positive trade agenda. Trump himself still has not come out as a strong supporter of the transatlantic alliance, and he sometimes echoes the populist rhetoric Western European allies fear.

“Tell me what Trump is for in Europe,” said former Pentagon official Evelyn Farkas, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “There’s continuity with previous administrations at the working level, but you need leadership to really make it matter.”

Despite this situation, several Europeans at the conference told me they were still dedicated to the transatlantic alliance, mostly because there is no better alternative. Many argued the Trump administration will be an anomaly in U.S. history and all Europe must do is hold the line and wait it out.

“Others have to keep the light until America returns to be the shining city on the hill,” said Karl Kaiser, a German political scientist now at Harvard University. “We don’t give up on the Americans, who saved us from the Nazis and protected us from the Russians.”

European transatlanticists are fighting an uphill battle in their home countries against anti-American forces. The Trump administration’s mishandling of the relationship harms their ability to help us.

What is missing from the Trump administration’s “America First” message is the recognition that the United States does well for itself when it does well for others. On issues ranging from counterterrorism to cyber defense to immigration to countering Russia, deepening cooperation with Europe is the best way to keep the United States safe.

That argument was left in Munich to the U.S. congressional delegation, whose usual head, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), could not attend due to his ongoing battle with cancer. Cindy McCain delivered his remarks at the dinner where he was honored.

“The real reason we come to Munich is because we believe that certain values should order our world … that the peace and prosperity we cherish depend on the survival and success of those values … and that they are worth the fighting for,” McCain’s text said.