How U.S. allies are responding to mixed messages of support

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NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and Vice President Mike Pence give a statement after a meeting at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, February 20, 2017. REUTERS/Eric Vidal - RTSZIDQ

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Top members of the Trump administration have been traveling overseas to calm some raw nerves among U.S. allies. The main source of the concern? Comments from President Trump that led to worries in Europe and beyond about American commitments to longstanding alliances and institutions.

John Yang has more.

JOHN YANG: Vice President Pence spent his holiday weekend hard at work, trying to reassure nervous leaders in Europe that the United States has their back.

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Whatever our differences, our two continents share the same heritage, the same values and, above all, the same purpose, to promote peace and prosperity through freedom, democracy and the rule of law.

JOHN YANG: In Brussels, the vice president underscored American support for NATO and for the European Union. President Trump has called NATO obsolete, and praised Britain’s decision to abandon the E.U.

At a campaign-style rally in Florida this weekend, Mr. Trump seemed to soften his tone a bit, even as he called again for greater burden-sharing among the allies.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I’m a NATO fan. But many of the countries in NATO, many of the countries that we protect, many of these countries are very rich countries. They’re not paying their bills.

JOHN YANG: Today, European Council President Donald Tusk welcomed the vice president’s reassurance, but appealed for unequivocal American support.

DONALD TUSK, European Council President: Too many new, and sometimes surprising, opinions have been voiced over this time about our relations and our common security for us to pretend that everything is as it used to be.

JOHN YANG: Separately, the head of NATO said he doesn’t believe America first means America alone.

Republican Senator John McCain issued his own critique at the Munich security conference. Without naming the president, he wondered aloud what earlier leaders would have said.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: They would be alarmed by the growing inability, and even unwillingness, to separate truth from lies.

JOHN YANG: Meanwhile, Defense Secretary James Mattis made a stop in Iraq today. President Trump set off alarm bells there last month

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If we kept the oil, you probably wouldn’t have ISIS, because that’s where they made their money in the first place, so we should have kept the oil. But, OK, maybe we will have another chance.

JOHN YANG: Today, Mattis walked it all back.

JAMES MATTIS, U.S. Secretary of Defense: All of us in America have generally paid for our gas and oil all along, and I’m sure that we will continue to do so in the future. We’re not in Iraq to seize anybody’s oil.

JOHN YANG: Mattis also promised continued U.S. support for Iraq’s offensive to retake Mosul from the Islamic State.

We turn now to Steven Erlanger, the London bureau chief for The New York Times.

Steve, thanks for joining us.

I should warn folks, I think we have got a little bit of a satellite delay here.

But, Steve, how reassuring were these visits from the vice president, the secretary of defense, the secretary of state to the European leaders?

STEVEN ERLANGER, The New York Times: Well, they were reassuring up to a point, but not that reassuring, because, after all, the president of the United States has very different views.

And when the president of the United States says words, words matter. And you have this strange image of his major security officials and Cabinet officials running around telling everybody, actually, don’t listen to the president of the United States.

And then two seconds later, the president tweets something or had that strange, rambling press conference, and everybody gets nervous once again, because everything seemed to be — you could turn everything upside down in a minute.

So this is really the problem. I mean, Trump has surrounded himself with a lot of basically sensible, traditional security figures. He’s just done it again with McMaster. A lot of them are either businessmen, who don’t really know diplomacy, or they’re generals, who have a very strict notion of diplomacy, which usually starts with a gun.

And they’re dealing with a whole network of European officials who are used to American leadership beginning from the top and American support for the idea of a Europe which is free, which has shared sovereignty, which is in America’s interests.

I mean, Trump seems to talk, as far as they’re concerned, about every alliance being transactional, that it’s a debt to pay or a bill. NATO isn’t about bills. America’s part of NATO because it’s in America’s interests. And America does pay quite a lot, but it has Asian interests, it has lots of other defense interests.

And, in fact, the Europeans are paying more. The price is less of an issue than the efficiency of the spending and the way it’s actually used, particularly in the face of new threats from Russia. And Trump’s bromance with Vladimir Putin shakes people a great deal, though they don’t like to talk about it. They don’t really understand it.

But in the face of more aggressive Russia, of cyber-warfare, of fake news, of the misuse of social media — or the use of social media to undermine allied leaders like Angela Merkel or the British government or the European Union itself, these are really troubling things for people.

So, it’s great for Vice President Pence to come and Jim Mattis to come and basically issue the kinds of platitudes that most American leaders and administrations have rarely had to do. But even those platitudes were greeted with some relief by people, though they do wait for the next Trump statement about some terrorist attack in Sweden that actually never happened or how NATO is somehow about paying bills and not about mutual defense.

JOHN YANG: Steve, as you look across the European capitals, is there one country or one nation — or what nations are more concerned than others about what’s going on now with the Trump administration?

STEVEN ERLANGER: Well, I would say right now it’s Germany, because Germany is in the middle of an election campaign that will climax in September.

And Angela Merkel is running for a fourth term. And she has been weakened by the migrant crisis and simple fatigue. And yet she is the person who is most seen as the strongest figure in Europe, not just in terms of the power of Germany and the economy of Germany, but in standing up to Moscow and Putin over Ukraine and Crimea.

She’s been crucial in keeping the sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Crimea and current activities. And there is a sense in Germany that Trump, for whatever reason, doesn’t care for her. And he’s very much a lover of Brexit. There’s a suspicion that somehow his real sympathies are with the alternative right, and not with the people who are keeping Europe strong.

JOHN YANG: Steve Erlanger with The New York Times, we have to leave it there.

Steve, great to see you again.

STEVEN ERLANGER: Thanks.

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