Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today's WorldView newsletter.


On Friday, Vice President Pence and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis will represent the United States at the Munich Security Conference, a summit with 47 foreign ministers and other global dignitaries in attendance. The American presence this year is particularly conspicuous: The three-day conference, billed as the marquee event for the world's "strategic community," may serve as a platform for Europe's leaders to underscore their rejection of President Trump's radical worldview.

By now you're familiar with the script. Trump's seeming indifference to the institutions that shaped more than a half century of global politics — from NATO to the European Union and even the United Nations — has had European officials concerned for months. Far-right parties in countries like France, the Netherlands and Germany are surfing the same ultra-nationalist wave that brought Trump to power. The custodians of the European establishment, once Washington's most eager allies, now fear the White House's effect on the world.

That anxiety is at the heart of this year's Munich conference. Its preparatory report — titled "Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order?" — is a chronicle of doom and foreboding. According to Wolfgang Ischinger, the veteran German diplomat who is also the conference's chairman, Trump's apparent willingness to see the European Union disintegrate amounted to "a declaration of war."

"Across the West and beyond, illiberal forces are gaining ground," the report declares. It goes on: "Populists are experts in the politics of agitation, forming an 'axis of fear' across the West that exploits insecurities and grievances of the electorate, often by twisting the facts or even by spreading outright lies that speak to the preconceptions of their supporters."

At risk are the fundamental pillars of liberal democracy and the international order.

Rushing to their defense is German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is expected to deliver an address on Saturday that can be read as a riposte to Trump's "America First" doctrine. "No country can solve the problems alone, joint action is more important," Merkel told reporters earlier this week.

The report lays out the concerns of Merkel and her peers: "The worries are that Trump will embark on a foreign policy based on superficial quick wins, zero-sum games, and mostly bilateral transactions — and that he may ignore the value of international order building, steady alliances, and strategic thinking. Or, maybe worse, that he sees foreign and security policy as a game to be used whenever he needs distractions for domestic political purposes."

The uncertainty isn't restricted to political elites. A recent poll found that only 22 percent of Germans see the United States led by Trump as a "reliable partner" — putting America only one percentage point above Russia.


The newly appointed leader of Germany's Social Democrats, Martin Schulz, attends a party board meeting in Berlin on Feb. 13. (Olver Weiken/EPA)

Trump has certainly boosted Europe's right-wing populists, but his success has also led to a resurgence of the continent's center-left, as my colleague Anthony Faiola observes. Merkel, a center-right politician, was already facing a challenge from the far-right. Now she risks being unseated by the Social Democrats, led by Martin Schulz, a former head of the European Parliament who thinks Merkel has been too soft on Trump. It's hard to overstate what a dramatic shift this is. In the pre-refugee crisis months of 2015, some members of Schulz's party — one of Germany's two main political factions — suggested not even running a candidate against the all-powerful Merkel.

"We will never give up our values, our freedom and democracy, no matter what challenges we are facing," said Schulz in a recent speech. He trained his fire at Trump: "That a U.S. president wants to put up walls, is thinking aloud about torture and attacks women, religious communities, minorities, people with handicaps, artists and intellectuals with brazen and dangerous comments is a breach of taboo that's unbearable."

In France, independent centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron also launched a jab at Trump. Macron, who looks likely to battle far-right candidate and Trump admirer Marine Le Pen in a run-off vote, mocked the White House's supposed rejection of climate science earlier this month.

"I want all those who today embody innovation and excellence in the United States to hear what we say," he said. "From now on, from next May, you will have a new homeland, France."

Despite their boss' rhetoric, Trump's lieutenants have delivered messages to their European counterparts that are more in keeping with Washington's traditional stances.

After holding meetings in Bonn, Germany, with various foreign ministers from the Group of 20 major world economies, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged Moscow to pull back in eastern Ukraine. In Brussels, Mattis scolded his NATO colleagues for not contributing their fair share in defense spending, a longstanding American complaint. But he also reiterated America's commitment to the military alliance and said he did not see much prospect of military collaboration with Russia, at least in the near future.

But no matter how figures like Mattis and Tillerson may moderate Trump's foreign policy, Europe's policy makers still fret over the prospecting of confronting a world of challenges on their own.

Writing in the Financial Times, columnist Anne Applebaum offered a curious new proposal for Western Europe's governments.

"Britain, together with France, Germany and others — perhaps including non-Nato members like Sweden — should launch a new European security pact that actually reflects political reality," wrote Applebaum. "In other words, Europe’s leading defense powers should create an organisation that is compatible with NATO, but which also starts preparing coldly for the day when the U.S. security umbrella might be withdrawn."

In other words, she argues, "better safe than sorry." And in the age of Trump, that may be the best motto.

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today's WorldView newsletter.