Foreign leaders dazed and confused over mixed messages from White House
BY NICK WADHAMS
AND MARC CHAMPION
WASHINGTON – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence flew out of Munich on Sunday, Feb. 19, leaving America’s allies relieved of some of their worst fears about the new administration’s foreign policy, yet still uncertain as to who will formulate it.
And for many of the Europeans who listened to Pence, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly over that weekend, the perception of chaos in Washington also raised an equally unsettling question: How much should Europe start doing on its own?
Bewilderment over the mixed messages from President Donald Trump and his top officials was a theme that emerged from those meeting U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at a gathering of foreign ministers in Bonn last week.
It continued through the Munich Security Conference, reflecting the unusual teething problems of the administration’s foreign and security policy team. Pence and Mattis declined to take questions after their addresses, frustrating some of the attendees who were seeking more clarity.
“The real shock was what you could call the dog that didn’t bark,” said Francois Heisbourg, a veteran security analyst and former French diplomat. “We used to see this from the Soviets and occasionally the Chinese. But to have American officials speaking in plenary sessions and refusing to take questions, it’s unbelievable.”
This sense of chaos, as well as the barely started process of filling posts below cabinet level, were lively topics of conversation in Munich, said Sandy Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia and deputy secretary general of NATO.
“I’m struck by how many European representatives here have read the collected works of Steve Bannon,” he said, referring to Trump’s chief strategist, who until last year ran the news website, Breitbart, and is thought to be an influential voice on the National Security Council.
Europe’s next move
Given political turmoil on the continent, with populists challenging established parties in the Netherlands, France and Germany in elections this year, how America’s NATO allies in Europe will respond is as unclear as Trump’s foreign policy.
But there was consensus on what Europe ought to do: Spend more on defense, take care of its own back yard and obsess less about what’s happening in the White House.
“Rather than parse every statement from a U.S. official and every tweet from the White House, Europeans need to start thinking about what they have to do for themselves,” said Mark Leonard, director of the Brussels-based European Council on Foreign Relations, speaking in a bar during the conference. Europe, he said, has been “infantilized and emasculated” by decades of over-reliance on the U.S. security umbrella.
Chancellor Angela Merkel called for increased military integration between Germany and France. With the U.K. negotiating to leave the EU, a major hurdle to long-shelved projects for creating a consolidated military command and even centralized funding will also be removed.
If Germany and France alone were to meet their 2 percent targets by 2024, that could add more than $40 billion to their defense spending, almost two thirds of what Russia spends today, according to Heisbourg. And while Germany may well not meet the 2020 target in full, the increases involved will be militarily significant, he said.
Numerous U.S. presidents have pressed other NATO members to spend more on defense in the past, to little effect. European nations have also steadfastly refused to consolidate their defense industries or coordinate procurement to give the euros they do spend as much punch as a dollar spent by the U.S. or a ruble spent by Russia.
A report compiled for the Munich conference counted 17 different families of main battle tanks in production in Europe, compared to one in the U.S.; 20 types of fighter aircraft compared to six; and 29 makes of destroyers and frigates in Europe to four in the U.S.
But this time may be different, according to some at the conference, both due to the convergence of threats Europe now faces — a revanchist Russia, jihadist terrorists, a refugee crisis and Brexit — and the uncertainty introduced by Trump.
This story was written with assistance from Matthew Miller Ian Wishart Jonathan Tirone Toluse Olorunnipa Patrick Donahue Elena Gergen-Constantine and Ilya Arkhipov.