MUNICH — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared at an annual gathering of Western diplomats and business leaders to declare Saturday that “the West is winning,’’ something that would be obvious to Trump administration critics, he said, if they were only willing to accept “reality.”
The Trump administration was hardly retreating from the world or its alliances, he insisted at the meeting, the Munich Security Conference, but leading it. The problem is that many American allies are reluctant to follow as the administration confronts Iran and insists on more contributions to collective defense.
Pompeo was followed by the secretary of defense, Mark Esper, who described a bleak future if the U.S. and Europe did not work to contain China on all fronts. Countries thinking of letting Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, build next-generation communications networks, he warned, should be prepared to see American intelligence cooperation reduced.
His remarks were met with silence by British and German officials, who are looking for ways to avoid offending the Chinese.
This year’s conference reflected the division and unease that have plagued the alliance in the era of Donald Trump and Brexit. The stated theme was “Westlessness,’’ a sense that close allies were unmoored and uncompetitive in a world both more diverse and more autocratic.
Emmanuel Macron, the French president, arrived to declare that allies were wrongheaded about Russia, and that Europeans needed to deal with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, on their own, not just through the lens of a growing cold war with America.
Still, there were fears of coming Russian interference in elections, including in the U.S., despite an upbeat talk from Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, who was given more time on stage than most of the world leaders.
His company — with powers that exceed most of the nations represented in Munich — is now spending more annually on security issues than it generated in revenue in 2012, he told the assemblage of presidents and foreign ministers.
Hand-wringing is hardly new for this meeting of Atlantic allies, where Europeans expressed doubts about the depth of American commitment even during the Obama era. But that uncertainty has soared since Trump has hesitated to commit the U.S. to coming to the defense of American allies — he would first measure their contributions to the alliance, he has often said — and has withdrawn from the Paris climate accord and the Iranian nuclear deal.
So it was striking that Pompeo felt it necessary to take on those who say the post-World War order is ending, telling the assembled leaders: “I’m here this morning to tell you the facts.”
Pompeo made the case that governments that “respect basic human rights” and “foster economic prosperity” are magnets for migrants.
“You don’t see the world’s vulnerable people risking their lives to skip illegally en masse to countries like Iran or to Cuba.’’
The Europeans in the room later noted that Pompeo did not mention the new restrictions in the U.S. that drastically limit the number of refugees who can enter the country.
Pompeo tried to be upbeat, talking about the joint work the U.S. and Europe were doing to confront Russia. He announced $1 billion to bolster an energy project for Central European countries on the Baltic, Adriatic and Black seas, an effort to blunt Russian energy projects like Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.
It was left to Esper to lower the boom on European nations so dependent on exports to China that they are trying to find a balance between Washington’s demands to shun Chinese technology and Beijing’s warnings against being excluded from Europeans markets.
Esper argued that the presence of Huawei in commercial networks risked undermining the NATO alliance, dismissing China’s argument that it has no capability to use its equipment to intercept messages or shut down networks in times of conflict.
“The Chinese Communist Party is heading even faster and further in the wrong direction — more internal repression, more predatory economic practices, more heavy-handedness, and most concerning for me, a more aggressive military posture,” he said. That has become a bipartisan view: His assessment was echoed by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi later responded, telling the forum that Esper and Pompeo “say the same thing wherever they go about China” and dismissed their remarks as “lies.”
“The root cause of all these problems and issues is that the U.S. does not want to see the rapid development and rejuvenation of China, and still less would they want to accept the success of a socialist country,” Wang said.
“The most important task for China and the U.S. is to sit down together to have a serious dialogue and find a way for two major countries with different social systems to live in harmony and interact in peace,” he added. “China’s ready, and we hope the U.S. will work with us.”
Esper later told reporters that he was cautiously optimistic about a seven-day “reduction in violence” in Afghanistan that could lead to a peace accord with the Taliban, saying that “we are going to suspend a significant part of our operations” in the country when the Taliban fulfill their part. But while U.S. forces could come down to 8,600, from about 13,000, he said there was not yet an agreed-upon timeline for further reductions.
Many eyes were also on Macron, whose relations with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany have been somewhat rocky. Macron made a plea for better European integration and more unity in defining European interests, urging the Germans to help develop “a European security culture” and not to see every security issue “through American eyes.’’
On Russia, he said: “We need a European policy, not just a trans-Atlantic policy.’’
He insisted that he was not frustrated with the apparent paralysis of the current German government, but conceded that he is “impatient.’’
France and Germany “need to take risks together,’’ he said. “That means our relationship has to change and adapt.’’
He argued that the Europeans needed to define their own interests to preserve their sovereignty in a world dominated by an increasingly nationalist U.S. and an ambitious Russia. But he insisted that a stronger European defense pillar would complement NATO, not weaken or replace it, as Washington and some European countries closer to Russia, like Poland and the Baltic nations, fear is his intention.
Macron also tried to explain his outreach to Moscow, viewing it as a difficult neighbor but one that Europe cannot ignore. The current policy of harsh economic sanctions, in place since the Russian annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine, has not changed Russian behavior, he argued. The sanctions “have changed absolutely nothing in Russia — I am not proposing at all to lift them, I am just stating this,” he added.
“We need in the long term to reengage with Russia but also emphasize its responsibility in its role” as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, he said. “It cannot constantly be a member that blocks advances by this council.”
There is “a second choice,’’ Macron argued, “which is to be demanding and restart a strategic dialogue because today we talk less and less, conflicts multiply and we aren’t able to resolve them.”
He said that he expected Russia will continue playing a destabilizing role in matters such as other countries’ election campaigns, either directly or indirectly.
“I don’t believe in miracles — I believe in politics, in the fact that human will can change things when we give ourselves the means,” Macron said.
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who was Merkel’s hand-picked successor as leader of the conservative Christian Democratic Union, threw Germany into political uncertainty this past week when said she would not seek the chancellorship when the country votes next year. Her decision has raised concerns that Germany will again be occupied with domestic affairs at a time when it is needed as a leader in Europe and on the international stage.
Still defense minister, Kramp-Karrenbauer appeared here and admitted that her country had not fully delivered on a promise made at the conference in 2014 to become more engaged in, and spend more on, security and defense.
“From the Munich ‘consensus of words’ must come a ‘consensus of action,’” she said. “The impact of German and European security and defense policy must be larger, our international actions must be better coordinated and more visible.”
But Kramp-Karrenbauer insisted that Germany would not join an American “maximum pressure” mission aimed at Iran in the Gulf of Hormuz. Instead, Germany would seek to coordinate “a mission dedicated to free and secure navigation” with its European partners.