Europe and the Trump administration have stopped pretending to respect each other. For the past two years, we have been treated to a transatlantic charade. Everyone knows there’s a problem, but publicly the leaders proclaim that nothing has fundamentally changed. But at the 2019 Munich Security Conference, which took place over the weekend, the charade ended. The American position is collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions. The Europeans are defaulting to nostalgia for a multilateral order. Meanwhile, the true challenge of a rising authoritarian bloc goes largely ignored.
The mood of defiance was summed up by Wolfgang Ischinger, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, in his opening and closing remarks. Ischinger, who is 72, opened the forum’s proceedings sporting a hoodie emblazoned with the EU flag—a gift from his grandson, and a not-too-subtle rebuke to an American administration that has reversed a 70-year policy of support for Europe. Three days later, in a suit and tie, he offered his closing observation: “As this conference concludes, critics might argue that some speakers were less interested in putting the pieces back together than in creating more disarray in our international system.”
Vice President Mike Pence seems unable to give a speech without offering long declarations of fealty to President Donald Trump. In Munich, he mentioned Trump by name 30 times, double the number of mentions in his 2017 Munich speech and 15 times more than then–National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster in last year’s American keynote. Trump later rebuked McMaster on Twitter for undermining his authority; Pence’s primary objective seemed to be to avoid that fate.
The substance of Pence’s speech, though, was more significant and worrying. In 2017, Pence spoke at length about the importance of the NATO alliance and its historic accomplishments. In 2019, there was none of that. The only praise of NATO was for its response to Trump’s leadership on defense spending. Otherwise, Pence offered a litany of criticism leveled against NATO and the EU—for not doing enough on Iran, Nord Stream 2, or Venezuela. (Ironically, the EU would have had a common position on this last item were it not for the effective veto of the pro-Trump Italian government.)
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Pence could have come and spoken about the common challenge facing the alliance from China—which is what many Europeans and Americans expected him to do. That would have been a worthy follow-up to his previous appearance at Munich. It would have turned the page on a contentious period in transatlantic relations and offered a constructive path forward. He did not choose that path, possibly fearing that it would be shot down by a president who has repeatedly rejected the idea of working with the EU on China. The administration’s national-security strategy of great-power competition wasn’t mentioned, nor was election interference, which Trump’s intelligence chiefs identified as a top threat facing the United States.
The administration’s America First approach to Europe is now riven with contradictions. Take Iran as an example. Senior administration officials have repeatedly said over the past year that while the United States was pulling out of the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal, they were not calling on the EU to do the same. That, they said, was a matter for Europeans, as sovereign nations, to decide. Apparently sovereignty is not what it used to be. With no explanation for the U-turn, Pence demanded that the EU now withdraw from the JCPOA. His message was clear: Under Trump, the alliance means getting behind whatever Washington decides, even if that changes weekly.
But the Europeans were not blameless either. German Chancellor Angela Merkel seemed to offer a stark contrast to the American delegation. Merkel was energetic and pumped up. She offered a robust defense of Germany’s policies and threw a few sharp elbows. She ridiculed the Trump administration’s trade declaration that German cars represent a national-security threat to the United States, drawing raucous laughter from the crowd. She rebutted Washington’s charge that the EU was weak on Iran by pointing out that a precipitous American withdrawal from Syria would empower the Iranians. She received rapturous applause. Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff of the German Marshall Fund astutely observed that Merkel “was finally playing the role that American liberals had wanted her to play—that of leader of the free world.”
But beneath the surface, all was not well. Merkel harked back to the old days and did not offer a way for Europe to succeed in a world defined by great-power competition. She said little about China, confining herself to some comments on unfair trade practices and saying nothing of the broader authoritarian challenge it poses to the international order. The German and British defense ministers and the EU High Representative all seemed stuck in the mid-2000s, offering little on the great-power competition unfolding around them.
There was also a notable absence. French President Emmanuel Macron canceled his joint appearance with Merkel after a dispute about the EU’s energy policy. The French are exasperated with the Germans, with whom they believe they cannot and will not work on needed reforms to the EU. The Germans, on the other hand, see the French as hopelessly nationalist, dreaming of Franco-German leadership with nothing to offer the Italians, the Poles, or others. Meanwhile, the British have just decided to continue to work with the Chinese technology firm Huawei, cutting against the prevailing winds in Western democracies. This is the sort of concrete issue that should have been discussed by the alliance, but it was lost in theological debates about leadership and the order.
The Americans and the Europeans seemed destined for at least two more years of mutual distrust. The Germans are not even trying to charm Trump anymore. In 2017, the German chancellor befriended Ivanka Trump in the hope of cementing ties with the United States. It may be why the first daughter attended Munich this year. But Merkel’s anointed successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, kept a cool distance from Ivanka during a joint breakfast appearance.
The European position is understandable, but fraught with risk. Help, if it comes, will not arrive until 2021. Rumors are rife in Washington of a new Trump move against the NATO alliance, which is preparing for a major meeting in Washington in April. Trump still has to choose a new defense secretary. The acting secretary, Patrick Shanahan, was at the Munich conference but, oddly, did not speak. He is losing support on Capitol Hill, and whether he will be nominated is unclear.
But despite all the problems of policy and personnel, the alliance cannot afford to wait two years. The Trump administration may believe that it does not need Europe, and the Europeans may believe that America is temporarily lost, but meanwhile, China and Russia gain ground. In Munich, Yang Jiechi, a senior Chinese official, gave a long and meandering speech about win-win solutions and the benefits of multilateralism, which was completely at odds with China’s increasingly assertive and disruptive behavior. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif reveled in the disarray between the allies and sought to drive a wedge between them, weaponizing the Trump administration’s rhetoric about sovereignty.
Wolfgang Ischinger was right. There is a big problem. Western leaders are retreating into their foxholes, taking potshots at one another, rather than figuring out how to deal with new challenges. We’ve been lucky so far that there has not been a major crisis on Trump’s watch, but the luck is unlikely to hold forever. When it breaks, it won’t matter who is to blame. It will only really matter whether we are equipped to deal with it.