MUNICH – Vice President Mike Pence made his case for “America First” in the deeply hostile territory of an annual conference of America’s closest European allies on Saturday. He was not deterred from repeating his demands that Europe withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement, ban Chinese gear from global communications networks and accelerate its increases in contributions to NATO.
Pence received a predictably tepid response, mainly from a crowd of visiting Americans. They included a number of Republican members of Congress who came to Munich, along with the Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, at a fraught moment in the trans-Atlantic relationship.
Hours later, Pence’s predecessor, Joe Biden, received a brief standing ovation after delivering an impassioned rebuttal to the Trump administration’s treatment of allies, in what appeared to be the foreign policy plank of a campaign for president — if he decides to run.
“I promise you, I promise you,” Biden said. “This too shall pass. We will be back. We will be back.” He never defined “we.”
Taken together, the two men defined the dramatic change in U.S. foreign policy that has left the traditional allies who gather at the Munich Security Conference in despair and has led the Trump administration to embrace newer, far more authoritarian allies in Central Europe. Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spent the week visiting several of them in a European tour that bore little resemblance to similar trips taken by administrations past.
“The contrast is between a new foreign policy that focuses on America first and expects others to do as we say no matter what,” said Ivo Daalder, a former American ambassador to NATO and now the president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, “and the old foreign policy of working together in pursuit of common values.”
Pence did acknowledge significant progress in getting more NATO members to live up to their commitment to contribute 2 percent of their gross domestic product to defense by 2024. Even the current secretary-general of the NATO alliance, Jens Stoltenberg of Norway, said Saturday that “European allies are stepping up more for defense.”
But Pence went further. He repeated a call he made in Warsaw on Thursday, during an American-led conference of foreign ministers chiefly from Arab and European states, that Britain, France and Germany withdraw from the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran.
It was a demand they had no intention of complying with, as Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany made clear in an impassioned defense of alliances and Europe’s approach to Iran that preceded Pence’s speech by only moments.
Pence, fresh from a visit Friday to the Auschwitz death camp, accused Iran of seeking another Holocaust, citing speeches from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader.
He moved on to demands for other steps to wall off Europe from adversaries, insisting the allies forgo any purchases of Russian arms, or the installation of advanced 5G communications networks made by Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant.
“We cannot ensure the defense of the West,” Pence said, “if our allies grow dependent on the East.”
The Munich conference has over the decades come to represent the alliance establishment.
Biden seemed to side with the organizers of the conference, who opened it with the release of a report titled “Who Will Pick Up The Pieces?” It focused on a rapidly restructuring world order and the anxiety among America’s allies that the Trump administration’s erratic leadership is a threat to their own security.
But Biden also warned against nostalgia and laid out his own challenge for NATO — that it must modernize to deal with new threats, starting with cyberattacks and information warfare. While NATO had a long-established playbook to deal with traditional armed invasions and even nuclear conflict, it only recently began discussing an offensive cyberstrategy.