Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

It’s Mattis and Pence to the Rescue of the Transatlantic Alliance

The Defense Secretary and the Vice President can either bring a message of unity and leadership to ease allies … or not.

KEVIN DIETSCH/Pool/Getty Images
KEVIN DIETSCH/Pool/Getty Images

This is a big week for the U.S.-European relationship. For seven days, Trump emissaries will flood Europe carrying a message of unity and leadership … or not.

Jim Mattis will be the first out, meeting with NATO defense ministers for the first time behind closed doors. Allies are anxious to hear just where the United States is heading in European defense, and they will expect to get the skinny from a leader they know and trust. Afterwards, Mattis will chair his first meeting of the huge Counter-Islamic State coalition, where a room full of defense ministers from across Europe and the Middle East will want to hear about the new U.S. plan to defeat the Islamic State. Partners less familiar with Mattis will be taking his measure. He clearly knows the military side but can he glad-hand like a politician and especially to keep Islamic members of the coalition comfortable with an administration that seems to be at war with Islam? And many will want to know what exactly the administration is planning on doing with Russia in Syria.

But the big show will be in Munich at the annual Security Conference on Friday, where Vice President Pence will lead a Trump team to face the inquisition. Like it or not, the great and good who attend the Munich Security Conference run things in Europe; a bad performance there can give your play a one-night run. Pence will have two core tasks. First, he needs to persuade the audience of 450 that the messages that they are hearing from Trump’s cabinet mirror those at the White House. Second, he needs to present the audience with something other than a plea to spend more on defense. Europeans want to know what kind of transatlantic relationship this administration wants and believes in. After Munich, Pence is on his way to make nice in Brussels both at NATO and the EU. His stage performance in Munich will determine whether his opening act in Brussels has a chance.

So what should be in the administration’s briefing books?

At NATO HQ, Mattis has an easy job, assuming Trump (or whoever is in charge of foreign policy in the White House) will let Mattis be Mattis. This will be the first time most Allies will hear from a Trump cabinet member what the administration really thinks about Europe, U.S. relations with Russia and what the future holds for U.S. troop rotations.

And this is not just any cabinet official. Jim Mattis is well known and trusted at NATO; what he says will be treated as gospel. He will either pick up NATO’s reins of leadership, reassure skittish Allies and move the alliance forward, or he could surprise us all and lay out a new vision of U.S.-European relations that has more of a Trumpian echo. But worst of all would be if he just skates across the surface and dishes out the usual bromides of “a Europe whole, free and at peace” or “NATO is the greatest Alliance in history.” Those trite bumper stickers may have worked when U.S. actions spoke louder than its words. But that doesn’t work today.

Mattis’ intervention at the NATO Defense Ministerial must first address Russia — is it a threat or not? Of course, Mattis will give them “the talk” about spending more on defense, but we have to do more than just hector. We need to get Allies to come up with an aggressive spending plan that gets their defense budgets to 2 percent of GDP sooner rather than later. But in exchange, the administration has to present allies with a vision of where NATO could and should head in the future. If allies are going to spend more, they need to know where those investments are going to go.

Finally, what about Trump’s contention that NATO is obsolete unless it does more on counterterrorism? MAttis will need to address this. Of all the international organizations out there, NATO has repeatedly and successfully adapted since the Cold War to remain relevant, even creeping towards an active counter-terrorism role since before 9/11. NATO does need to do more in counter-terrorism but most allies (including the U.S.) consider counter-terrorism a domestic matter. That’s why many Europeans prefer to talk about transatlantic counter-terrorism cooperation in EU-U.S. channels. Still, it’s fair to ask why NATO couldn’t be given a bigger role in running the Counter Islamic State coalition? Now that the U.S. has it off the ground (with the help of France, Denmark, and the UK among others), why not hand it off to NATO to run?

Let’s jump to Munich. Pence has a big job explaining in a credible way what Trump meant to say about Europe, NATO and the EU. Does he double down and suggest the EU be disbanded or does he distance himself from his boss? He needs to start by reassuring Europeans that we continue to share similar values and that we don’t take our allies and partners for granted. It would help if he reaffirmed support for the post World War II institutions and structures that the United States helped to build and served us so well during the Cold War. And yes he must say something about U.S. relations with Russia, including the future of sanctions and U.S. troop deployments … and with the Russians in the room. (As his boss would say, “TOUGH!”)

On immigration, most of the European leaders in the room have had to deal with the sensitive politics associated with that issue. Many have managed to avoid looking like fascists as they controlled their borders. So on this issue Europeans should be sympathetic; instead they are still stunned by Trump’s hamfisted Executive Order. Pence needs to convey that we are not as unsophisticated as we look and will get our act together. But he will face a skeptical audience.

Last stop for the Vice President is Brussels, home to all that Trump (along with his pal Nigel Farage) seems to dismiss. Pence will go into the belly of the beast and will try to say something he didn’t cover in Munich. Here, instead of talking at EU officials, he may want to listen and learn about two institutions that his administration appears to know so little about. He should ask EU leaders for their views on sanctions, their impact to date, the challenge of renewing them, and the risks of lifting them. If he says anything, it should be about the values we share and the work we want to do together to combat terrorism, to improve trade and to strengthen deterrence. But most importantly, he should acknowledge the work we will do to restore the transatlantic trust that has been damaged as the United States struggles to figure out who we are as a nation.

Assuming Pence and Mattis hit a home run and do a lot to instill confidence in our closest allies, Europeans will still be left wondering what Trump himself believes and whether he will follow up on the ideas they heard this week. European leaders will have to wait until the NATO Summit in May to find out.

Photo credit: Marine Corps General James Mattis shakes hands with Vice President Mike Pence after being sworn-in as Defense Secretary in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 20. KEVIN DIETSCH/Pool/Getty Images

Julianne (“Julie”) Smith is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a Weizsäcker fellow at the Bosch Academy in Berlin. She served as the deputy national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden from 2012 to 2013. Before going to the White House, she served as the principal director for European/NATO policy at the Pentagon. Smith lives in Washington with her husband and two children. Smith is a co-editor of Shadow Government. Twitter: @Julie_C_Smith

Jim Townsend is an adjunct senior fellow in the Center for a New American Security’s Transatlantic Security Program. He served for eight years as U.S. President Barack Obama’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO. Twitter: @jteurope