Dazed and Confused by Trump, Europe Asks If It Can Step Up

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  • Reading Steve Bannon to understand U.S. foreign policy
  • More defense spending seen as hedge against U.S. disengagement

Pence Pledges U.S. Support for NATO, EU

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence flew out of Munich on Sunday 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 the weekend, the perception of chaos in Washington also raised an equally unsettling question: How much should Europe start doing on its own?

Mike Pence at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 18.

Photographer: Alex Kraus/Bloomberg

Pence’s pledges to back NATO and “hold Russia to account” over Ukraine offered some reassurance to Europeans worried the U.S. will abandon the transatlantic alliance. Yet bewilderment over the conflict in messaging between 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.”

Sense of Chaos

This sense of chaos was a lively topic 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 said before taking office that the Judean-Christian West is in a global war with Islam.

There was concern, too, among U.S. partners over the slow start to filling posts below cabinet level in the new administration. Some, including U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, counselled patience, but for now the rest of the world will struggle to find interlocutors who reflect what the president wants.

“In three months the full line-up of deputy, under and assistant secretaries will be in place,” said Elliot Abrams, a Trump critic who served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Until then, “the lack of department personnel and the uncertainty about whether cabinet secretaries speak for the President will continue, and it may continue until events themselves clarify American policy.”

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.

Military Command

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.

“When you are dealing with a volatile person such as the current POTUS, you have to hedge. You have no choice,’’ said Heisbourg. The alternatives, he said, are to build stronger militaries or cosy up to Russia.

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.

Balkan Conflict

Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic sounded a passionate alarm concerning a potential return to conflict in the Balkans, where she said nationalism and jihadist ideologies have surged to fill a vacuum left as the EU has soft-pedaled promises of EU membership, primarily due to rising political opposition at home to further enlargement.

This will be a key test of the EU’s ability to respond to threats in its own back yard, Grabar-Kitarovic said in an interview. “We should first and foremost look at our own home security and how to counter threats,’’ she said, while expressing confidence that in time Trump will also come to recognize the value of stabilizing Europe’s underbelly, through which hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers from the Middle East pass on their way north, as part of the fight against international terrorism.

So far, though, there is little sign that EU governments are willing to take unpopular steps toward further enlargement, casting doubt over whether Europe can become a more proactive security player, able to stabilize even its own immediate neighborhood. The hurdles are large, said Fiona Hill, a former official on the U.S. National Intelligence Council who is now at the Brookings Institute, a U.S. think tank, but so are the threats.

“In my view this is a time of necessity,’’ she said. “If you don’t take the action, you will have to accept the consequences.’’

— With assistance by Matthew Miller, Ian Wishart, Jonathan Tirone, Toluse Olorunnipa, Patrick Donahue, Elena Gergen-Constantine, and Ilya Arkhipov

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