As a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, I left the Munich Security Conference concerned that we are witnessing the most worrisome division across the Atlantic in memory.
In a dramatic weekend showdown, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Vice President Mike Pence offered strikingly opposite views about the future of NATO and the once close transatlantic relationship. Former Vice President Joe Biden spoke for many former American officials in both parties who believe that the Trump administration has needlessly weakened our ties to Europe.
The normally quiet and polite Merkel came out swinging against President Donald Trump’s America First policy, charging the United States with unfair sanctions and criticism over Europe’s continued participation in the Iran nuclear deal. She lamented Trump’s recent decisions to back away from U.S. military commitments in Syria and Afghanistan and his aggressive trade policies toward the European Union.
Merkel’s criticism was echoed by many other European leaders at the conference. They believe that Trump has broken with former U.S. presidents in treating the EU as a competitor rather than a friend, his negative leadership of the NATO alliance, and his weakness in refusing to stand up to Russia’s assertive president, Vladimir Putin.
Read more commentary:
Trump and his Republican minions are playing with nuclear fire on NATO and Russia
Chaos in Trump’s White House is dangerously good news for our global adversaries
America is on the brink of a historic break with Europe, thanks to Trump
For two years now, Trump’s advisers have told Europeans to watch what America does and not what the president says in his often intemperate and caustic tweets. But since Trump took the United States out of the Paris climate change and Iran nuclear agreements — both top priorities for European nations — support for Trump has plummeted on the continent.
Merkel appears to have reached a breaking point with Trump, who has also threatened trade sanctions against German cars. She and other European leaders might be calculating that they can wait out Trump until the 2020 presidential election, when most clearly hope he will be defeated.
Merkel and not America now leads the West
Given America’s dominant power and commitment to democracy, each U.S. president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt has been considered the leader of the West. That title could now be falling more credibly to Merkel. Since Trump’s arrival in the White House, she has been much more passionate and consistent in defending the institutions the United States have led in creating since World War II.
Trump, on the other hand, has exhibited open hostility to Europe and, unlike President Ronald Reagan, for example, has not emphasized democratic values in his foreign policy. While criticizing Merkel and other European leaders, he has at the same time embraced authoritarian leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban, North Korea’s Kim Jung Un and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Pence and Biden in battle of US vice presidents
The overwhelming applause for Merkel’s defiant speech stood in sharp contrast to the bare civility that greeted Pence. The largely European crowd of officials, journalists and think tank experts mostly failed to applaud when Pence said he brought greetings from Trump. Pence’s criticism of the United Kingdom, Germany and France on Iran went over badly in the hall. He and his advisers clearly did not grasp just how much Europeans inside and outside of government dislike and oppose Trump and his go-it-alone policies.
Biden spoke several hours after Pence, giving Munich attendees a rare chance to compare and contrast the two American leaders. In introducing Biden on the Munich stage, I noted his decades of support for a close U.S. relationship with Europe. Biden pledged his full support to NATO and the EU, in contrast to Trump and Pence, and pointed to polls indicating continued, strong American public backing for NATO.
In this battle of the VPs, Biden won a decisive victory as measured by the crowd’s reaction. Merkel received the first standing ovation of the day. Biden, arguing it was in the self-interest of Americans to lead internationally, got the second when he concluded, “We will be back.”
America is stronger inside NATO than outside
Another factor in the Munich drama was the presence of the largest U.S. congressional delegation to Munich in memory — more than 50 members from both parties — whose most senior representative was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Democratic and Republican members alike reassured anxious Europeans that the United States would stand by its NATO commitments and remain a constant friend to Europe.
Congress was at the center of a Harvard Kennedy School report that I and retired Army Lt. Gen. Doug Lute, both former U.S. ambassadors to NATO, presented in Munich. In “NATO at 70: An Alliance in Crisis,” we said Congress must block any attempt by Trump to diminish U.S. military contributions to NATO or to withdraw America from the alliance completely. We also judged that “NATO’s single greatest challenge is the absence of strong, principled American presidential leadership for the first time in its history.”
The United States is unquestionably stronger in NATO than outside of it. The European allies came to our defense after 9/11, have fought and died with our soldiers in Afghanistan, and they are helping us to defeat the Islamic State terrorist organization. Most Americans agree Europe remains vital for the United States with the apparent exception of President Trump, whose ill-advised policies threaten to separate America from our closest allies in the world.
Nicholas Burns is a Harvard professor and former undersecretary of State who served presidents of both parties in his foreign service career. His positions over a 27-year period included U.S. ambassador to NATO. Follow him on Twitter: @RNicholasBurns