Two Americas were represented by two different vice-presidents at the Munich Security Conference this year. Between them, former vice-president Joseph Biden certainly received the warmer reception, but vice-president Mike Pence may have unwittingly emerged as the saviour of transatlantic relations.
In his address, Pence duly championed his boss, US president Donald Trump, as the “leader of the free world.” But the “free world” he described was scarcely recognisable to the Munich audience. In the world Trump wants to lead, America is not the exceptional power, but merely a normal country putting its own interests first. By that logic, it is only reasonable to break from multilateral institutions that allow weaker countries to free-ride on American largesse.
Pence’s blunt speech in Munich may have been painful to hear; but one hopes that it will bring an end to European complacency and point the way to a renewal of transatlantic relations on realistic terms.
In keeping with this vision, Pence used his speech to demand that Europeans spend more on defence, and to extol the virtues of the Trump administration’s trade war against China. But the climax came when he enjoined Europe to get in line with the US in suspending the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – and restoring sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
According to Pence, Iran is plotting another Holocaust, for which Europeans will bear partial responsibility unless they stop undermining US sanctions. This warning came on the tail of a US-hosted conference in Warsaw, which was designed to drive a wedge between European Union countries and derail the bloc’s efforts to salvage the JCPOA.
Pence spoke for the America that works to divide and weaken Europe. The other America, represented in Munich by Biden, views the Trump administration’s actions as an “embarrassment”. In his speech, Biden described an America that does not want to turn its back on allies and that values democracy, the rule of law, freedom of the press, and a close partnership with Europe based on shared “human decency”.
Biden ended his remarks to great applause, declaring: “We will be back.” Was he referring to an outward-looking America, or to a future Biden presidency? Many of those present hoped for both.
The rapturous applause following Biden’s appearance was markedly at odds with the awkward, stony silence that followed Pence’s address. The contrast was reminiscent of the early 2000s, when disillusioned transatlanticists took refuge in The West Wing, wherein the cerebral character of President Josiah Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen) stood in stark contrast to George W Bush and his administration’s disingenuous brutality.
But such escapism yields only false hope. Rather than being lulled into complacency by Biden’s reassuring words, Europeans would be better off heeding Pence. Only by growing up, paying its way, and clarifying its goals can Europe repair the transatlantic relationship and ensure a healthy and durable partnership.
The fact is that Europeans and Americans have long lied to themselves and each other about the extent of their common interests and values. European and US strategic interests have been diverging at least since the end of the cold war. America rescued a hapless Europe in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. But by the time of the Kosovo war at the end of that decade, Europeans had begun to wake up to their responsibilities. In the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, and in the conflict in Ukraine since 2014, it was Europeans, not Americans, who led the diplomatic response and imposed the strongest sanctions on Russia.
Moreover, Europe is the only party ever to have mobilised in the name of collective defence under Article 5 of the NATO treaty. Following the terror attacks of 11 September 2001, Europeans sent forces to distant wars in the Middle East, over which they had little control.
In hindsight, it is clear that those wars destabilised Europe’s neighbourhood and, eventually, Europe itself. America’s exclusive focus on counterterrorism left war-torn Middle Eastern countries with fragile governments, or none at all. And in recent years, Europeans have increasingly borne the costs in the form of terrorism and influxes of refugees.
As for the US, many of its 320 million citizens no longer understand why they should have to protect 500 million Europeans, who live, after all, on a relatively peaceful and prosperous continent. They know that their country is in an escalating competition with China in the Indo-Pacific, and are thus shocked that Europeans would join the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Ultimately, Europeans are left between a rock and a hard place. They, too, want to push China harder on trade and investment issues. But the best way to do that is through the World Trade Organization, which the Trump administration is actively undermining.
The divergence in values is no less pronounced. For their part, Europeans support international institutions, rules-based arrangements, and multilateralism generally. But America has always been ambivalent about treaties and institutions that might constrain its sovereignty or defy its objectives.
While Trump and Pence crudely state what today’s America wants, Biden is selling a vision of America that it no longer obtains. The US government does not have the American people’s consent to act on the world stage as it once did. While Americans still recognise the importance of sustaining US economic and military primacy vis-à-vis China, they appear to have rejected the elite consensus on trade, defence spending, and diplomacy.
The transatlantic partnership will always be Europe’s most important relationship. But it can last only if both sides take responsibility for their own affairs. The alliance would be immeasurably stronger if it were based on an honest assessment of each side’s interests and values, rather than on quaint illusions of fellow feeling.
Pence’s blunt speech in Munich may have been painful to hear; but one hopes that it will bring an end to European complacency and point the way to a renewal of transatlantic relations on realistic terms. If that turns out to be the case, Pence will have won the title of transatlantic hero – whether he wants it or not.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.