Pence on NATO He tells Europe the U.S. de­fense com­mit­ment is un­changed.

Some in Europe skep­ti­cal of U.S. com­mit­ment to usual transat­lantic bonds

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY MICHAEL BIRN­BAUM AND ASH­LEY PARKER michael.birn­baum@wash­post.com ash­ley.parker@wash­post.com

mu­nich — 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.

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 semis­e­ri­ously 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.

“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.

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.

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