Europe’s leaders gathered in apprehensive mood in Munich on Saturday for their first chance to weigh up the new US leadership’s approach to collective defence in the face of what many perceive as a growing Russian threat.
The signs have been mixed, and confusing, since Donald Trump won election last November. He initially signalled warmth towards Vladimir Putin and some scorn towards Nato. More recently he has appeared to backtrack on both fronts.
The US vice-president Mike Pence, making his first visit to Europe since taking office, failed to quell those anxieties in a speech on Saturdayat the Munich security conference.
Instead, he left some of his European allies confused and alarmed, angry at being chastised for failing to pull their weight in the defence alliance, and concerned that too little attention is being paid to the future of the European Union.
The audience, made up of national leaders, defence and foreign ministers and other senior government figures, who would normally, out of politeness, offer up a warm welcome for a senior US politician, greeted some of his comments with sparse applause.
Pence, reiterating that the US remained committed to Nato, attempted to soothe concerns that Trump might deal directly with Putin, bypassing western Europe. The audience welcomed his promise that Russia will be held “accountable” for its actions in Ukraine, although he didn’t spell out how.
But he lost them when he went further than US defence secretary James Mattis at Nato headquarters last week in rebuking Nato members such as Germany, France and Italy for failing to pay a fair share of its financial burden, reports The Guardian. Echoing Trump’s threat last year that he would not necessarily be bound by Nato’s article five, which commits every member to come to the aid of any that comes under attack, Pence reiterated the president’s warning that military help might depend on how much a country under attack had contributed to Nato.
Pence reminded the audience in Munich that Nato had two core principles; one was article five but the other, usually forgotten, was article three, dealing with shared financial burden. “We vowed in that treaty to contribute our fair share to our common defence,” Pence said.