Mixed Signals at the Munich Security Conference

Vice President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly led the U.S. delegation to the opening of the Munich Security Conference. The annual weekend gathering is known for providing an open and informal platform for allies — and adversaries — to meet in close quarters to discuss issues on the global security agenda.

Pence, Mattis and Kelly delivered messages of reassurance on their debut trip to Europe. However, the resignation of President Trump’s national security adviser Michael Flynn over his contacts with Russia shortly before the U.S. charm offensive in Europe tarnished the message they were seeking to send.

In Pence’s first major foreign policy address for the Trump administration, he told European leaders that he spoke for Trump when he promised unwavering commitment to the NATO alliance. President Trump’s contradictory remarks on the value of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, scepticism over the 2015 deal to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions and an apparent disregard for the future of the European Union have left Europe fearful for the seven-decade-old U.S. guardianship of the West.

The United States is Europe’s biggest trading partner, the biggest foreign investor in the continent, the European Union’s partner in almost all foreign policy, as well as the main promoter of European unity for more than 60 years. The change in Washington puts the European Union in a difficult position, with the new U.S. administration seeming to put into question decades of American foreign policy.

This was reinforced by the somewhat contradictory remarks of the U.S. envoys to Europe. Vice President Pence, despite his message of unwavering support for NATO, also warned that the failure of some NATO members to meet its defense spending guidelines of 2 percent of GDP erodes the very foundation of the alliance.

Mattis — a former U.S. Marine Corps general — also showed strong support for NATO, saying that the transatlantic bond remains America’s strongest bulwark against instability and violence. However, Mattis also warned that America would moderate its commitment unless Europe stepped up.

Although the U.S. has long complained of NATO partners shirking their end of the alliance’s defense burden, warnings like these are a new phenomenon. It is therefore not hard to see why many European leaders may decide to remain skeptical about America’s commitment as the remarks echo the contradictions that characterize the Trump administration.

Adding to the sense of confusion was Republican senator John McCain’s scathing attack on the President Trump. Speaking in Munich on NBC’s Meet the Press, McCain warned that attacking the press is “how dictators get started.” Such an utterance by a U.S. official clearly aimed against his own government is unprecedented in modern times, and will leave many in Europe scratching their heads as to how exactly to deal with the new U.S. administration.

That this is the case was made evident by the statements of the German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen. Speaking at the conference, von der Leyen warned the U.S. against damaging European cohesion, softening on Russia and abandoning core Western values. She emphasized that the U.S. should not take transatlantic ties for granted, thereby reinforcing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s statements in November that cooperation was based on democracy, freedom and respect for human rights.

The conference caps a week of European debuts for Trump’s team, following Defense Secretary James Mattis’s first meeting with NATO counterparts in Brussels on February 15-16 and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s attendance at a Group of 20 foreign ministers meeting in Bonn on February 16.

By Lidsey Espinoza Pedraza & Markus Heinrich