The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pence and Merkel embrace NATO but differ on transatlantic partnership

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, and Vice President Pence spoke Feb. 18 at the Munich Security Conference. (Matthias Schrader/Associated Press)

Invoking the name of President Trump but not his rhetoric, Vice President Pence on Saturday sought to reassure Europeans of Washington's robust commitment to transatlantic defense, even as Europe searched for clarity in the contradictory statements coming from the new U.S. administration.

Pence told a skeptical audience at the Munich Security Conference that Europeans should rest assured that Washington’s fundamental foreign policy direction was not changing. In a speech that touched on military sacrifice, God and an unwavering faith in the power of shared values, Pence offered the fullest outline from the Trump administration on international policy since the beginning of the turbulent term nearly a month ago.

“Today, tomorrow and every day hence, be confident that the United States is now and will always be your greatest ally,” Pence said in his red-blooded speech, which was met with only a smattering of applause. “Be assured: President Trump and the American people are fully devoted to our transatlantic union.”

But allies were left trying to resolve Pence’s rhetoric with that of his boss, who routinely upends the statements of subordinates and has equated Russia’s human rights record with that of the United States, declared NATO obsolete and ferociously torn into judges, reporters and others who have crossed him.

German defense chief hits Trump’s attitudes on torture, Russia and Muslims

The lack of mention of the European Union, whose unraveling Trump has praised, also unsettled European leaders. Pence travels to Brussels on Sunday for meetings with senior E.U. officials.

U.S. officials in Europe last week, including Pence and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, focused on an issue that has been a bipartisan concern in Washington, that of Europe’s lackluster defense spending, rather than Trump’s desire for a new relationship with the Kremlin, a major fear in Europe.

The mixed messages reassured some allies and unsettled others. Some leaders proposed that Europe respond by embracing its own strength and turning away from the United States to stand alone in the world — what one diplomat semi-
seriously called an effort to "Make Europe Great Again."

But the E.U. is riven by internal conflicts of its own, and officials said a true European declaration of independence is most likely a non-starter. Instead, there was acknowledgment from German Chancellor Angela Merkel on down that Europe is reliant on the United States to fight international terrorism and will never be able to go it alone.

“The challenges of this world today cannot be mastered by one state alone. It needs a cooperative effort. We need to forge ahead with multilateral structures. We have to strengthen them,” Merkel said in a speech that she delivered immediately before Pence’s. “Let me address this very openly. The Europeans alone cannot cope with fighting international Islamist terrorism. We also need the support of the United States.”

The biggest takeaway from the Munich conclave of security leaders — a ritzy conference at the Bayerischer Hof hotel where the world’s policy elite gather annually to joust over issues of the day — was that the Kremlin has a new rival in its efforts to unsettle Western alliances.

Rex Tillerson eases concerns over foreign policy under Trump

Vice President Mike Pence said Russia must be held "accountable" regarding Ukraine and "demand they honor" the Minsk ceasefire agreement. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

“You come here and you realize that the biggest source of instability in the world right now is not Russia. It’s the United States,” said Angela Stent, a Russia expert at Georgetown University who served as a policy adviser in the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

The uncertainty manifested itself in a host of ways, none larger than an initiative from German Foreign Minister ­Sigmar Gabriel to reinvigorate the E.U. so that it is robustly capable of standing apart from the United States.

“In all of these conflicts, we always relied on the American government to solve the problems, to find a way,” Gabriel said. “And if we didn’t like it, we could always criticize the government of the United States. But we ourselves have been reluctant to interfere.”

Gabriel added that “we should hope for the best but be prepared for the worst” from the United States.

But the proposal was shot down by other leaders, who said that any steps that would degrade the transatlantic alliance would be dangerous and counterproductive.

“It is an absolutely mistaken idea, because we can be great only together, Europe and the United States, not separately,” Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said in an interview.

Still, many European officials said that Trump is such a major challenge to Europe that they cannot just hope to muddle through for the next four years.

“Our problem is not really Trump. Our problem is that Trump exposes our weaknesses and gaps,” said one European diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal talks.

Trump’s calls for Europe to increase defense spending could force other upheaval

Pence met Grybauskaite and the leaders of Latvia and Estonia to reassure allies that border Russia and have called for a robust U.S. military presence in the region to fend off attack. Grybauskaite and others in the room said that Pence mostly listened in the closed-door meeting but that he had repeated public reassurances of support and said the message was backed by Trump.

“He said all the right things,” said Estonian Foreign Minister Sven Mikser, who was also in the meeting.

Pence also met with the leaders of Ukraine and Iraq, as well as with other senior officials from Europe and the Middle East.

In his speech, Pence offered a vision of the world that could easily have come from a conventional Republican security hawk, pointing to “Russian efforts to redraw international borders by force.” He called for quelling the conflict in Ukraine by adhering to the Minsk II agreement, a 2015 plan that sets out a road map for peace that was endorsed by President Barack Obama and European leaders.

And he pushed for greater defense spending, a key Trump campaign demand that was prefaced by Mattis earlier in the week. Only four NATO nations apart from the United States meet alliance guidelines to spend 2 percent of their annual economic output on defense. Mattis said that U.S. security guarantees remain rock-solid even as he warned that Washington might “moderate its commitment” to NATO if other countries fail to spend more.

Pence echoed the message. But — underscoring the beliefs of his boss, who many in Washington and Europe say has been too cozy toward Russia — Pence also sought to strike a balance with the Kremlin, hinting at signs of a possible partnership between the two nations.

“And 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,” Pence said.

The thorny issue of Russia has clouded Trump’s young presidency, amid reports that Michael Flynn, his national security adviser who resigned Monday, improperly discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador to the United States before Trump took office, and that Trump staffers and associates repeatedly communicated with senior Russian intelligence officials during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Pence’s tough line on Russia was enough to upset Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who later Saturday called for a “post-West world order” and added that “we cannot rejoice in the fact that the European Union still cannot find the strength to abandon its policy toward Russia,” a reference to sanctions.

Read more:

In the home of NATO and the European Union, dismay as Trump takes power

Even as Trump seeks warmer ties with Russia, U.S. deploys troops across Eastern Europe

As Europe braces for the Trump era, a showdown looms over values

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news