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America's European Allies Still Seeing Mixed Messages From Trump Administration


We're going to start the program today in Germany where the 53rd Munich Security Conference ended with the White House failing to provide the reassurance America's European and NATO allies were looking for. Many of the top foreign officials and leading security experts attending the conference were left scratching their heads at what they perceived as mixed messages from the Trump administration. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson files this report from Munich.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: The annual Munich gathering opened with a burning question - what is America's new role in a world defined by terror, war and shaky alliances? Wolfgang Ischinger is the Munich Conference's chairman.


WOLFGANG ISCHINGER: In all these 53 years, we have never had a situation quite like the one we're facing today. European leaders and others are extremely impatient to find out what will really drive U.S. foreign policy in this new period?

NELSON: Vice President Mike Pence was sent to the Munich Conference on his first overseas trip for the Trump administration to ease those jitters. Pence told the conference that Donald Trump embraces transatlantic ties, which the vice president stressed were forged with two world wars worth of American blood, sacrifice and money.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: We've been faithful for generations. And as you keep faith with us under President Trump, we will always keep faith with you.

NELSON: Pence also spoke of America's, quote, "unwavering commitment to NATO," but said Europe has to up its military spending and take a more active role in its own defense.


NELSON: His comments drew mostly tepid applause, which did not surprise conference-goer Sylke Tempel. She is editor-in-chief of the Berlin Policy Journal.

SYLKE TEMPEL: We see the effort to reassure the Europeans that we're here and we take NATO seriously, but the main question remains. How much of an influence do people like Mike Pence have on the government?

NELSON: Never mind European anxiety over Trump's overtures to Russia, which Pence also touched on.


PENCE: 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.

NELSON: European leaders, however, appeared reluctant to verbally bash the new American president, especially German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She embraced the U.S. call for Europeans to be more involved in paying for and providing their own defense, although she couldn't resist a swipe, even if she didn't mention Trump by name.


ANGELA MERKEL: (Speaking German).

NELSON: She asked, "will we be able to continue working well together or will we all fall back into our individual roles?" Tempel, the analyst, says part of Merkel's reserve is because she and European leaders realize they still very much need the United States. They are facing threats from Moscow toward the Baltics and Eastern Europe, Islamist terror and the potential breakup of the European Union fueled by the impending departure of the United Kingdom and member demands for less centralization.

So even though Pence and the other Trump officials failed to provide the desired reassurance, their attempts didn't make things worse, Tempel says.

TEMPEL: I don't think that it did any damage because, you know, we have to look at the other side. I mean, point is the Europeans have to get their act together.

NELSON: There are signs, however, that Europe may be taking steps to go it alone more often without U.S. help. Germany's foreign minister said yesterday, he sees no need to add the U.S. to the group of countries that have been meeting to help reduce tensions in Eastern Ukraine. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Munich. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.