Remember how Donald Trump spent much of the 2016 election campaign touting his ability to negotiate better deals for the United States? For all the bombast about trade with China and nukes in Iran, and cheering from supporters who probably couldn’t find either country on a world map, it turns out that the international agreements he intended to renegotiate and perhaps junk altogether were with our allies and not our rivals. That’s why Vice President Mike Pence was delivering bad news at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, February 18th.
The traditional formula for diplomatic rhetoric is three parts empty idealism to one part national interest. That would describe Pence’s speech except that even the national interest component was empty.
Pence knows how to deliver empty idealism. He’s made a political career out of speaking about conservative social values and avoiding serious discussion of the unintended consequences of imposing them as public policy on others. Thus we heard the following in Munich: “As you keep faith with us, under President Trump we will always keep faith with you. The fates of the United States and Europe are intertwined. Your struggles are our struggles. Your success is our success. And ultimately, we walk into the future together.”
These and other pretty words were coupled with the demand that our European allies pay more for the privilege of walking into whatever future awaits. Failing to do so, Pence threatened, “erodes the foundation of our alliance.” You could hear that as the demand to ‘pay up or we walk away’ but it is more likely that Trump simply wants to walk away.
Pence went through the motions of sounding tough about the national security threat that matters most to Europeans, intoning, “And know this: 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.” What our NATO allies know is that the Trump White House is looking for ways to roll back economic sanctions on Russia and that the GOP leadership in Congress is trying to protect the president and the members of his inner circle from revelations about their criminal relationships with the Kremlin.
Appeasing Russia was Pence’s real message to our NATO allies in Munich. A kompromised Trump lacks the will to defend of the territorial sovereignty of the newer NATO member states in Eastern Europe and the leaders of the older NATO member states know they cannot credibly threaten to do so without U.S. support.
What Vladimir Putin wants in addition to an end to economic sanctions was made clear in Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s response at Munich. Describing NATO as a relic of the Cold War and condemning the expansion of the alliance to the western borders of Russia, Lavrov demanded, “mutual respect and acknowledgement of our responsibility for global stability.” Reading between the lines is easy. Moscow wants what it deems to be its share of Europe. In the near term that has dire implications for the survival of liberal democracy and territorial integrity in the Baltic States, Ukraine and Georgia. Little imagination is need to conceive of Russian ambitions for regime change elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
The core national security problem for NATO is not that the alliance cannot resist Russian arms. The problem is that Trump is vulnerable to blackmail and simply cannot resist Putin’s demands. Threats to release either the details of Trump’s financial dealings with Russian oligarchs or the golden shower video are more than enough to prevent him from invoking Article V of the NATO Treaty should Russian volunteers took control of Latgale region in Latvia. They are probably be enough to prevent the administration from acting even if Russian Army tank columns rolled all the way into Kiev.
What might the Trump administration actually do in response to Russian aggression like that? We would all like to imagine that wiser heads would prevail but wiser heads are difficult to locate in this administration. The better bet is that Trump would blame our NATO allies for fomenting the crisis and assail journalists for unfair criticism. So long as this most vulnerable of presidents is in office, the freedom of Europe is in profound danger.