MUNICH — Vice President 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 Trump 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, Pence’s 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 E.U. 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 seem to feel they need to keep them safe from Russia.
“Today, tomorrow and every day hence, be confident that the United States is now and will always be your greatest ally,” Pence said. “Be assured: President Trump and the American people are fully devoted to our transatlantic union.”
Trump has repeatedly called NATO “obsolete,” but U.S. officials 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 Trump’s 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 Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
Pence was critical of what he called the “Russian efforts to redraw international borders by force.” He called for quelling the conflict in Ukraine by adhering to the Minsk II agreement, a 2015 plan that sets out a road map for peace.
But — underscoring the beliefs of his boss, who many in Washington and Europe say has been too cozy toward Russia — Pence also sought to strike a balance, hinting at signs of a possible partnership between the two nations.
“And 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,” Pence said.
The thorny issue of Russia has clouded Trump’s young presidency, amid reports that Michael Flynn, his national security adviser who resigned Monday, improperly discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador to the United States before Trump took office, and that Trump staffers and associates repeatedly communicated with senior Russian intelligence officials during the 2016 presidential campaign.
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 Trump’s call for NATO countries to meet their full financial commitments to the alliance.
“Let 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,” Pence said — 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 GDP on defense, a trend Pence said was problematic.
“The 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,” he said. “When even one ally fails to do their part, it undermines all of our ability to come to each other’s aid.”
Speaking immediately before Pence, Merkel sought to quiet rising voices in Europe that say that the continent should prepare to turn away from Trump’s 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.
“The 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,” Merkel said. “Let me address this very openly. The Europeans alone cannot cope with fighting international Islamist terrorism. We also need the support of the United States.”
But she also pushed for an approach that does not alienate Muslim allies, a fear that has spiked following Trump’s rhetoric about Muslims and his attempts to impose a travel ban on nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries.
“Cooperation with the United States is very important to us. But what’s also important to us is that Islamic states have been incorporated into this coalition,” she said, referring to efforts to combat the Islamic State.
“Only this way will we be able to convince people that it is not Islam that is the problem but a falsely understood Islam,” she said.
With Pence sitting in the audience, Merkel also reiterated her “respect” for a “free, independent press,” in response to a question from a German reporter, who asked her opinion on the quality of newspaper reporting in the United States.
While she did not address Trump directly, her comments offered a stark contrast to a recent tweet from Trump, in which he accused the “fake news” media of being “the enemy of the American people.”
Merkel said she supports “a free, independent press” and has “high respect for journalists,” adding that, in Germany, the relationship has always been one of “mutual respect.”
Later Saturday, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said that the Trump administration is contemplating a new version of the travel ban that would allow in travelers who were onboard airplanes bound for the United States into the country, but would bar those who had not yet gotten on planes.
“If they’re in motion from some distant land to the United States, when they arrive, they will be allowed in,” Kelly told the Munich Security Conference. “That being said, we will have a short phase-in period to make sure that they don’t get on the airplane.”
That would spare U.S. airports some of the chaos in the days after the travel ban on citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries was imposed last month – but it may simply export the confusion to foreign airports.
The change would also create fewer plaintiffs with grounds to take legal action to overturn the travel ban.