As I discussed yesterday, President Trump sent his “A Team” to Europe to demonstrate America’s commitment to NATO. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and Vice President Mike Pence all traveled to a major conference in Munich for that purpose.
Kelly, Mattis, and Pence said the right things. Pence, who told the conference he was sending a message of reassurance directly from President Trump, stated that the U.S. “strongly supports” NATO and that it would be “unwavering” in its commitment to trans-Atlantic institutions like NATO.
As for Russia, Pence said that “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.” Lest their be any concern that the “common ground” would include selling out Ukraine, Pence added that the U.S. would demand that Russia honor a 2015 peace deal agreed upon in Minsk, Belarus, aimed at ending violence in eastern Ukraine.
Pence summarized the Trump administration’s position on Europe and NATO as follows:
We have been faithful for generations — and as you keep faith with us, under President Trump we will always keep faith with you. The fates of the United States and Europe are intertwined. Your struggles are our struggles. Your success is our success. And ultimately, we walk into the future together.
Were the Europeans reassured? They were not, as this New York Times article makes clear.
But why weren’t they? That’s less clear from the article.
The Times complains that Pence and the others provided only “boilerplate.” But what the Times calls boilerplate is actually an unequivocal statement of support for NATO and for Ukraine.
The Times cites alleged concerns about power struggles within the White House and uncertainty about who the new national security adviser will be. But here were the U.S. vice president and secretary of defense, both of whom by all accounts hold great sway in this administration, speaking to the Europeans on behalf of the president. And here is the New York Times telling us that “Europeans were ‘chilled’ when Robert S. Harward, a retired vice admiral, turned down an offer to replace Mr. Flynn because he would not be given autonomy over his staff.”
In my view, the Europeans pronounced themselves not reassured because they hate President Trump for reasons having little to do with his supposed admiration for Putin (which consists of the obvious truth that Putin is a strong leader) and his supposed skepticism about NATO (which consists of the obvious truth that NATO needs to be updated and the reasonable demand that members meet their financial commitments to the organization).
European leaders hate Trump for the same reason their left-wing counterparts in America do — Trump isn’t a left-winger and he’s a crass, vulgar guy. The Europeans look down on him and nothing is likely to change this. The threat to our alliance with Europe comes more from this arrogance than from anything Trump has done, or even said, so far.
I must add that John McCain’s presence didn’t help. According to the Times, he said the administration is “in disarray,” and added: “The president, I think, makes statements and on other occasions contradicts himself. So we’ve learned to watch what the president does as opposed to what he says.”
The second statement isn’t wrong. But I think it is wrong for McCain to go to Munich and express doubts about the administration before it has taken any action towards Europe that warrants criticism.
I will also add that if the Europeans want to worry about a core NATO member, perhaps they should focus on Germany. Here, via Andrew Stuttaford, is a report on what Germany’s president had to say about NATO, Eastern Europe, and Russia:
Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke out against recent Nato military exercises in Poland and the Baltics, describing them as “sabre-rattling”.
“The one thing we shouldn’t do now is inflame the situation with loud sabre-rattling and warmongering,” the minister told Bild am Sonntag newspaper. . . .“We would be well advised not to provide a pretext to renew an old confrontation.”
The military exercises in question were the annual war games NATO conducts in Eastern Europe. This one simulated a Russian invasion of Poland. Apparently, the German president would rather not prepare for such a possibility.
Steinmeier’s position as president is largely ceremonial. However, he was elected by the German parliament.
Maybe it is Germany that needs to reassure America.