MUNICH âÂ Vice President Mike Pence and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday offered dueling assessments of the troubled transatlantic relationship, as both praised NATO but Pence made no mention of the European Union, the key economic and political pact that binds Europe together.
In back-to-back speeches at the Munich Security Conference, Merkel and Pence appeared to find common ground about NATO, whose members have been urged by President TrumpÂ to spend more on defense. But while Merkel praised the broader international organizations that have been a key part of the post-Cold War global order, Penceâs silence on the E.U. may only fuel fears among European allies that the new leadership in the White House will embrace only some aspects of European unity, while rejecting others.
On Sunday, Pence will travel to Brussels, where the European Union will command more of his attention. On Monday, he will meet with senior E.U. leaders before returning home.
Pence offered a robust embrace of U.S. security commitments to Europe, seeking to tamp down speculation that Trump would pursue a new path that would abandon guarantees that European nations feel they need to keep them safe from Russia.
âToday, tomorrow, and every day hence, be confident that the United States is now and will always be your greatest ally,â Pence said. âBe assured: President Trump and the American people are fully devoted to our transatlantic union.â
Trump has repeatedly called NATO âobsolete,â butÂ U.S. officialsÂ in Europe this week, including Pence and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, appear to be concentrating more on pushing allies to meet NATO defense spending commitments rather than focusing on Trumpâs desire for a new relationship with the Kremlin, a major fear in Europe. Many European allies see Russia as a security threat following its 2014 annexation of Ukraineâs Crimean Peninsula.
Pence was critical of what he called the âRussian efforts to redraw international borders by force.â He called for quelling the conflict in Ukraine by adhering to the Minsk Agreements, a 2015 plan that sets out a road map for peace.Â
But â underscoring the beliefs of his boss, who many in Washington and Europe believe has been too cozy toward Russia â Pence also sought to strike a balance, hinting at signs of a possible partnership between the two nations.
âAnd know this: 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,â Pence said.Â
The thorny issue of Russia has clouded Trumpâs young presidency, amid reports that Michael Flynn, his national security adviser who resigned Monday, improperly discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador before Trump took office, and that Trump staffers and associates repeatedly communicated with senior Russian intelligence officials during the 2016 presidential campaign.Â
In a bid to reach out to the countries with the most at stake for any U.S.-Russian rapprochement, Pence is expected to meet Saturday with the leaders of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, as well as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
In the 20-minute speech to the Munich gathering, Pence echoed Trumpâs call for NATO countries to meet their full finance commitments to the alliance.Â
âLet me be clear on this point: The president of the United States expects our allies to keep their word, to fulfill this commitment, and for most, that means the time has come to do more,â Pence said â a line that was met with only light applause.
Only four NATO nations apart from the United States meet alliance guidelines to spend 2 percent of their annual economic output on defense, a trend Pence said was problematic.
âThe promise to share the burden of our defense has gone unfulfilled for too many for too long and it erodes the very foundation of our alliance,â he said. âWhen even one ally fails to do their part, it undermines all of our ability to come to each otherâs aid.â
Speaking immediately before Pence, Merkel sought to quiet rising voices in Europe that say that the continent should prepare to turn away from Trumpâs United States and embrace partners such as China. She said that even as Europe strengthens its own defense capabilities, it will never be able to fight terrorism without the United States.
âThe challenges of this world today cannot be mastered by one state alone. It needs a cooperative effort. We need to forge ahead with multilateral structures. We have to strengthen them,â Merkel said. âLet me address this very openly. The Europeans alone cannot cope with fighting international Islamist terrorism. We also need the support of the United States.â
But she also pushed for an approach that does not alienate Muslim allies, a fear that has spiked following Trumpâs rhetoric about Muslims and his attempts to impose a travel ban on visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries.
âCooperation with the United States is very important to us. But whatâs also important to us is that Islamic states have been incorporated into this coalition,â she said, referring to efforts to combat the Islamic State.
âOnly this way will we be able to convince people that it is not Islam that is the problem but a falsely understood Islam.â