Shadow Government

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

Pompeo’s Speech in Brussels Was Tone-Deaf and Arrogant

No one but autocrats wants to buy what he has to sell.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a press conference after a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Dec. 4. (John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a press conference after a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Dec. 4. (John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a press conference after a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Dec. 4. (John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo set himself an impossible task for his speech in Brussels on Tuesday: take President Donald Trump’s disparaging and often contradictory remarks about Europe and his self-declared love for nationalism, weave them into a cohesive trans-Atlantic strategy, and try to sell it to a large audience in Brussels. Unfortunately, no one—except perhaps Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and a few other autocrats—bought it. Pompeo’s tone-deaf calls for European countries to reassert their sovereignty in the name of reforming the liberal order did not reveal anything resembling a trans-Atlantic strategy. It revealed only the administration’s ignorance and arrogance.

Pompeo’s main message was that the rules-based, multilateral system that served the West’s collective interests for many decades no longer worked. To prove his point, he ticked through a list of the weaknesses and failings of international institutions, including the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and the African Union. Anyone who has followed Trump’s public remarks about international institutions—or those of his national security advisor, John Bolton—did not find that perspective at all unexpected. What Europeans did find surprising was that Pompeo lumped the European Union in with those other institutions. “It’s quite a precedent to have a U.S. Secretary of State put the EU on the hit list,” Marcin Zaborowski, the former head of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, texted me after the speech.

It’s not that Europeans think the “system,” as Pompeo described it, is working beautifully. EU officials will be the first to tell you that the EU (and many other institutions for that matter) is in need of reform. What causes Europeans to cringe is to hear a U.S. secretary of state use language that so closely mirrors Orban’s critique of the EU. “Is the EU ensuring that the interests of countries and their citizens are placed before those of bureaucrats here in Brussels?” Pompeo asked. Since the EU’s creation decades ago, successive U.S. administrations have expressed unwavering support for the European project. To now have a White House that seems to side with Orban in the ongoing battle across Europe between open and closed societies is remarkable.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo set himself an impossible task for his speech in Brussels on Tuesday: take President Donald Trump’s disparaging and often contradictory remarks about Europe and his self-declared love for nationalism, weave them into a cohesive trans-Atlantic strategy, and try to sell it to a large audience in Brussels. Unfortunately, no one—except perhaps Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and a few other autocrats—bought it. Pompeo’s tone-deaf calls for European countries to reassert their sovereignty in the name of reforming the liberal order did not reveal anything resembling a trans-Atlantic strategy. It revealed only the administration’s ignorance and arrogance.

Pompeo’s main message was that the rules-based, multilateral system that served the West’s collective interests for many decades no longer worked. To prove his point, he ticked through a list of the weaknesses and failings of international institutions, including the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and the African Union. Anyone who has followed Trump’s public remarks about international institutions—or those of his national security advisor, John Bolton—did not find that perspective at all unexpected. What Europeans did find surprising was that Pompeo lumped the European Union in with those other institutions. “It’s quite a precedent to have a U.S. Secretary of State put the EU on the hit list,” Marcin Zaborowski, the former head of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, texted me after the speech.

It’s not that Europeans think the “system,” as Pompeo described it, is working beautifully. EU officials will be the first to tell you that the EU (and many other institutions for that matter) is in need of reform. What causes Europeans to cringe is to hear a U.S. secretary of state use language that so closely mirrors Orban’s critique of the EU. “Is the EU ensuring that the interests of countries and their citizens are placed before those of bureaucrats here in Brussels?” Pompeo asked. Since the EU’s creation decades ago, successive U.S. administrations have expressed unwavering support for the European project. To now have a White House that seems to side with Orban in the ongoing battle across Europe between open and closed societies is remarkable.

What Europeans also found remarkable was Pompeo’s repeated emphasis on the nation-state as his answer to a broken international system. Germans were particularly insulted by that framing. “When Pompeo questioned the system of multilateralism, he was implicitly threatening the foundation of German foreign policy,” said Jana Puglierin, a European policy expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations. “This whole emphasis on the nation-state and its sovereignty contradicts everything Germany has stood for in the past 70 years.” Carlo Masala, the director of the Metis Institute for Strategy and Foresight in Germany, put it another way. “The part where Pompeo talked about the nation-state versus the liberal order is utterly wrong. For midsize powers, the liberal order is the way to maintain sovereignty,” he said.

In the end, Pompeo’s speech was little more than a sea of contradictions. It claimed that the United States was “rallying the noble nations of the world to build a new liberal order that prevents war and achieves greater prosperity for all.” But he also announced that the United States was reasserting its sovereignty and that, going forward, it would support institutions that serve U.S. interests. Europeans didn’t hear that as a rallying cry to save the liberal order. They read it as a thinly veiled attempt for the United States to gain “more freedom of action,” Masala said.

Pompeo claimed that Trump was “returning the United States to its traditional, central leadership role in the world.” That’s the greatest contradiction of all. Neither Trump nor Pompeo has outlined any sort of positive vision for the future of the trans-Atlantic relationship. Instead of strengthening U.S. ties with Europe to compete with China and Russia, the Trump administration continues to weaken trans-Atlantic unity and resolve at a time when the United States needs them most.

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

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