MUNICH — An annual security conference where Western allies have long forged united fronts erupted Saturday into a full-scale assault on the Trump administration’s foreign policy. European leaders, would-be Democratic challengers and even the president’s Republican backers took the floor to rebuke the president’s go-it-alone approach.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel — habitually cautious about provoking Trump — led the charge, unleashing a stinging, point-by-point takedown of the administration’s tendency to treat its allies as adversaries.
The speech appeared to provide much-needed catharsis. Trump’s antagonistic behavior has bred two years of accumulated grievance in much of Europe but has been met with few substantive answers on how to effectively challenge it.
Merkel accused the United States of strengthening Iran and Russia with its plans for a speedy military pullout from Syria. She expressed shock that the Trump administration would deem BMWs made in South Carolina a threat to national security.
And she lamented that the U.S.-led global order “has collapsed into many tiny parts.”
The crowd gave the German chancellor an extended standing ovation — a rare display at the normally button-down Munich Security Conference. The customarily reserved Merkel beamed as she took her seat. Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and a top adviser, looked on from the crowd, stone-faced.
The speech, and the response, underscored just how far apart the United States has drifted from its traditional allies during Trump’s term — and how little Europeans care about concealing their contempt.
At last year’s conference, U.S. allies in Europe were reluctant to voice out loud the depths of their concerns with the state of the transatlantic relationship, said Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group.
“Now there’s a lot more openly displayed anger about the fact that the relationship is broken,” Bremmer said. “The Trump administration doesn’t understand that it’s not just about how much people pay. It’s about a relationship, trust, how you communicate, shared values. That all matters.”
Merkel was followed to the podium Saturday by Vice President Pence, who was met with only tepid applause — and some incredulous looks — when he proclaimed Trump “the leader of the free world.”
“We came here to reaffirm our commitment that ‘America First’ does not mean America alone and tell leaders, allies and countries around the world that America is stronger than ever before and America’s leading on the world stage once again,” Pence said.
While the vice president extended some reassurances to allies — asserting the country’s commitment to NATO, and celebrating shared victories against terrorist groups — he also offered barbs.
Pence credited Trump with spurring NATO allies to spend more on defense but insisted that they are still not spending enough. He also reiterated a demand he first made on Thursday in Warsaw for European allies to follow the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal.
“The time has come for our European partners to withdraw,” Pence said.
Pence later said he had had “frank discussions” with European allies about the issue. Merkel said she found the dispute between Europe and the United States on Iran “depressing.”
The vice president’s speech was met with disdain by some European officials who say they have no intention of abandoning the Iran nuclear deal and felt his aggressive tone would only stir up more opposition.
Gathered shortly after, a group of senior European military officers observed with surprise that Pence made relatively little mention of Russia, the major security concern for many of the conference’s attendees.
Other officials joked that Europe’s eagerness to have more U.S. troops on their soil was increasing — to defend against the whims of the White House.
The transatlantic tension came at a high-profile conference with a decades-long pedigree. The gathering in Munich has traditionally been a chance for the United States and its allies to work out their differences with the rest of the world.
But since Trump’s election, the focus has shifted to the schisms within the West.
“We need to get used to this. It’s not going to be like the good old times, when everyone comes, gives speeches, everyone applauds, and everyone goes home,” said Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics, whose nation is on the front lines of the conflict with Russia and whose security depends on Europe and the United States getting along well enough to defend the Baltics. “It’s getting crazier and crazier. I don’t know what next year’s Munich will bring.”
Beyond the gap between America and Europe, the divides within the United States were also on vivid display Saturday.
Hours after Pence left the stage, his predecessor, Joe Biden, took to the podium to deliver a speech full of praise for multilateralism, allies and cooperative decision-making — the very rhetoric that Europe had been accustomed to hearing from presidents of both parties before Trump’s election.
“The America I see does not wish to turn our back on the world or our closest allies,” Biden said, citing a commitment to both NATO and the European Union that has often been in doubt under Trump. “The America I see cherishes a free press, democracy, the rule of law. It stands up to the aggression of dictators and against strongmen.”
Biden emphasized that he was speaking as a private citizen, not a candidate. But the possibility that he will challenge Trump in 2020 hung over his remarks.
He was introduced by R. Nicholas Burns, a former top State Department official under both Democrats and Republicans who favorably contrasted Biden’s approach to the world with Trump’s, then asked the crowd to “imagine a different sort of American leader.”
Biden himself offered the crowd a warmly received assurance that Trumpism won’t last and that a more familiar strand of American leadership will return: “As my mother would say: This too shall pass. We will be back. We will be back. Don’t have any doubt about that.”
At a subsequent news conference, he confirmed that he was considering a presidential run and would make a decision “in the near term.”
Democrats and Europeans were not the only ones offering criticism of Trump.
The president’s fellow Republican, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), praised the president for trying to shake up the foreign policy status quo. But he also left little doubt that he sharply disagrees with Trump’s moves to get out of Syria and Afghanistan without consulting allies.
Appearing at a women’s empowerment forum Saturday morning alongside Ivanka Trump, Graham slammed cuts in foreign aid and preemptive military withdrawals.
“The first people who suffer are going to be women,” he said.
Europe’s calculus in deciding how to handle Trump is bound up in the question of whether he will serve one term or two, and whether his “America First” approach will survive beyond his presidency.
Some in Europe have argued that Trump is more symptom than cause of a changed America and that the continent needs to urgently ease its dependence on the United States for protection.
Merkel herself has called for Europe to “take our destiny into our own hands.”
But her actions have not been nearly as dramatic as her words. Europe has struggled to unify or to take the steps needed to stand apart from the United States.Meanwhile, Merkel has studiously avoided taking the bait when Trump has provoked her with jibes on the campaign trail or on Twitter.
Her Saturday remarks were a striking departure, with the chancellor — who has said she is in her final term — appearing unburdened by the need to avoid offense.
Longtime observers of Merkel’s political evolution said they saw a chancellor who had decided — in her deliberate fashion — to take a clear shot at the Trump officials in the audience.
“She seemed liberated,” said Constanze Stelzenmüller, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Merkel devoted much of her speech to an item-by-item rundown of areas where the U.S. and Europe disagree, seeking to refute the Trump administration position on each one. She appeared particularly aggrieved by U.S. threats to raise tariffs on German cars — justified on the grounds that they endanger U.S. national security.
The idea, she noted dryly, was “a bit of a shock” given that BMW has a major manufacturing center in South Carolina.
Merkel concluded with a plea for the sort of multilateral decision-making that has been in short supply since Trump took office, arguing that it can be slow and difficult but is preferable to the alternative.
“Trying to forge win-win situations,” she asked rhetorically, “is this not better than trying to solve all of these issues alone?”
Anne Gearan and Missy Ryan contributed to this report.