The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Europeans are quite aware of what they’re going through. Is Mike Pompeo?

Regarding Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s big bad speech.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after a meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Dec. 4. (John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has not had a great 10 days. He briefed the Senate on the Saudi government’s killing of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi in an effort to stop the Senate from voting against U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen. He lost. He wrote a bad op-ed in the Wall Street Journal to please his president at the cost of alienating Congress even more. After CIA Director Gina Haspel briefed members of the Senate this week, the fury at Pompeo’s disingenuous briefing seemed to escalate.

And then Pompeo had to go lecture Europeans on multilateralism.

Earlier this week the secretary of state gave a speech in Brussels designed to be sweeping in its scope. He claimed that, “[Trump] is returning the United States to its traditional, central leadership role in the world. He sees the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. He knows that nothing can replace the nation-state as the guarantor of democratic freedoms and national interests. He knows, as George H.W. Bush knew, that a safer world has consistently demanded American courage on the world stage. And when we — and when we all of us ignore our responsibilities to the institutions we’ve formed, others will abuse them.”

What is odd about that paragraph is that Pompeo caricatured one of the key pillars of American leadership that George H.W. Bush embraced: “Multilateralism has too often become viewed as an end unto itself. The more treaties we sign, the safer we supposedly are. The more bureaucrats we have, the better the job gets done. Was that ever really true? The central question that we face is that — is the question of whether the system as currently configured, as it exists today, and as the world exists today — does it work? Does it work for all the people of the world?”

The Council on Foreign Relations' Stewart Patrick knows an awful lot about multilateralism, and it is safe to say that he was unimpressed with Pompeo’s speech:

Leave aside for the moment that nobody actually believes what Pompeo alleges: that multilateralism should be an end in itself; that paper commitments are credible absent implementation, verification, and enforcement; or that the yardstick of success is how many bureaucrats get hired. What sensible people do believe is that multilateral cooperation is often (though not always) the best way for nations to advance their interests in an interconnected world of complicated problems. Working with others is typically superior to unilateralism, since going it alone leaves the United States with the choice of trying to do everything itself (with uncertain results) or doing nothing. Multilateralism also provides far more bang for the buck than President Trump’s favored approach to diplomacy, bilateralism....
“The central question that we face,” Pompeo asked in Brussels, “is the question of whether the system as currently configured, as it exists today—does it work? Does it work for all the people of the world?” The answer, of course, is not as well as it should, and not for nearly enough of them. But if the secretary is seeking to identify impediments to a better functioning multilateral system, he can look to his left in his next Cabinet meeting.

Indeed, last week I had the good fortune to speak at the European Political Strategy Centre, the European Commission’s in-house think tank, at its global trends conference. I had three takeaways from that conference. The first is that, to paraphrase David Bowie, the European Union is quite aware of what it’s going through. There were serious discussions about how to rightsize the E.U.’s role in European society. Some of the responses — “light on regulation, right on regulation” — would not have sounded out of place on a GOP platform. The second is that European attendees seemed far less worried about Brexit than they were about, say, the illiberalism of Hungary’s Viktor Orban — a leader whom the Trump administration has warmly embraced. The Brexit talk was surprisingly minimal — perhaps because the Europeans recognize it as a “lose-lose” affair in which the United Kingdom is dazed and confused that they could not negotiate a better withdrawal agreement.

The third and most disturbing takeaway was the number of times panelists talked about the need to cope with the United States and China, as if there were no difference between the two countries in Europe’s eyes. This should be the wake-up call for Pompeo: If Europeans view the Trump administration in the same way that they view Xi Jinping’s administration in China, then there is no point in talking about the United States as a leader of anything.

Indeed, I do not think Americans appreciate just how much collateral damage the Trump administration is doing to U.S. interests on the continent. If you want proof of this point, consider the latest Pew survey results of U.S. and German attitudes about the state of the bilateral relationship. According to the top-line findings, “In the U.S., seven-in-ten say the relationship is good, while 73% in Germany say the relationship is bad. Among Germans, this constitutes a sharp elevation in negative assessments since 2017, when 56% said the relationship was bad.... Seven-in-ten Americans say the U.S. should cooperate more with Germany, but only 41% of Germans say Germany should cooperate more with the U.S.”

Pompeo believed he was telling Europeans some harsh truths in his speech. He conveniently ignored the unpleasant truths confronting U.S. foreign policy.