U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Pence Arrives at Munich Conference With Allies Questioning U.S. Leadership

(Bloomberg) -- Vice President Mike Pence arrived at Europe’s big annual security conference on Friday, determined to push back against a common perception that the U.S. has vacated its role as leader of the free world.

Pence joined a large bipartisan U.S. delegation at the Munich Security Conference where he will face an unusually high-level Chinese contingent as well as Russian push back over the U.S. decision to suspend involvement in the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty.

U.S. allies who see the Trump administration itself as a problem to manage will be as big a challenge as the Russian and Chinese delegations.

The event has in recent years become a sounding board for concerns in Europe over issues such as President Donald Trump’s commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and to multilateral approaches to issues such as trade, arms control and climate change. The idea that the U.S. has abandoned leadership of the West has become commonplace.

A senior official in the U.S. delegation argued that Trump’s efforts to upgrade his country’s military capabilities make the world safer. He also pointed to a large increase in defense spending, a detente with North Korea and the prospect of regime change in Venezuela as the fruits of Trump’s assertive approach to foreign affairs.

“What you are witnessing is President Trump and the United States of America being the leader of the free world,’’ the official said. The administration is putting U.S. interests first, but in a way that advances peace and security in the world, he added.

Concerns About Trump

This weekend’s conference is the first, however, at which administration figures trusted in Europe, such as former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who spoke last year, and former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who spoke in 2017, will be absent. A pre-conference report set the tone, worrying that the U.S. approach to allies risked “squandering its competitive advantages’’ as U.S. policies come to match the president’s tweets.

In a sign of the mood, Pence was met with a lengthy silence rather than applause when he said he brought “greetings from 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump,’’ in remarks to participants on Friday evening.

‘Is NATO Stronger?’

Pence was addressing an award ceremony for the first recipients of a scholarship to honor the late U.S. senator and war veteran John McCain, a regular attendee and favorite of the conference for decades.

Pence won’t be alone in pushing back against skepticism among U.S. allies. “The president can be a handful, but so can many of you,’’ Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said during a panel discussion earlier in the day. “Is NATO stronger today than it was two years ago? I would say so.’’

Challenged over perceived U.S. abdication in areas from climate change to Syria, Graham listed a series of administration achievements, including the physical defeat of Islamic State, now down to just “a couple of kilometers and one town’’ in Syria. Even as the U.S. leaves Syria, he said, it is doing so with plans to stabilize the area -- adding that he hoped Trump would come to NATO allies with requests for help.

“Your point about American leadership -- it is there,’’ said Graham. “But the status quo will be challenged by this administration.’’

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