MUNICH, Germany — US Vice President Mike Pence on Saturday pledged an “unwavering” commitment to transatlantic ties, aiming to reassure allies including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who pleaded with nations not to go it alone.
Capping a week of whirlwind diplomacy by American officials who have descended on Europe to calm nerves rattled by President Donald Trump, Pence underlined the United States’ loyalty to its old friends.
“The United States is and will always be your greatest ally. Be assured that President Trump and our people are truly devoted to our transatlantic union,” he told European leaders at the Munich Security Conference.
Pence said Trump would stand by the NATO transatlantic alliance and no one should doubt his commitment after sacrifices made to defend it.
“The president asked me to be here today to convey a message, a reassurance — the United States of America strongly supports NATO and we will be unwavering in our commitment to this transatlantic alliance,” Pence said.
“Let no one doubt our commitment,” he said.
The Munich conference, attended by top leaders, officials and analysts from around the world, was watching Pence closely to see if he would reaffirm the central US role in world affairs after Trump’s “America First” stance suggested Washington would strike out on its own.
Speaking just before Pence, Merkel had warned countries against precisely that, saying the only way to solve global problems was to stick together.
“In a year in which we see unimaginable challenges we can either work together or retreat to our individual roles. I hope that we will find a common position,” Merkel said.
In an apparent message to Trump and his efforts to enact a travel ban on several Muslim-majority nations, the German leader stressed that Islam was not the source of terrorism, according to Reuters. Muslim countries, she added, must be included in the war against jihadists.
Merkel conceded room for improvement in multilateral structures, saying that in many places they are not efficient enough.
“I am firmly convinced that it is worth fighting for our common international multilateral structures, but we must improve them in many places,” she said.
Merkel reiterated that Germany is committed to the official NATO goal of putting 2 percent of gross domestic product into defense spending — Germany currently contributes 1.3 percent.
“We will do everything we can in order to fulfill this commitment,” she said. “But let me add, however, that I believe while NATO is very much in the European interest, it’s also in the American interest — it’s a very strong alliance where we are united together.”
Pence also sought to calm nervous European allies who remain concerned about Russian aggression and have been alarmed by Trump’s positive statements about Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Pence vowed Saturday that the United States will “hold Russia accountable.” He said the US would demand that Russia honor a 2015 peace deal agreed upon in Minsk, Belarus, aimed at ending violence in eastern Ukraine.
“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,” Pence said.
Pence was meeting later Saturday with Merkel, as well as the leaders of the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko — countries dealing with the threat of Russian incursion — along with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.
The visit, which will include a stop in Brussels on Sunday and Monday, comes amid worries in Europe about Russian aggression, Trump’s relationship with Putin and whether the new president may promote isolationist tendencies through his “America First” mantra.
“The vice president has sent reassuring messages through his own engagement but that hasn’t been enough to dispel the concerns that you see in many parts of Europe,” says Jeff Rathke, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There are such grave challenges that the US and Europe faces that it only heightens the desire for additional clarity from Washington.”
Pence’s stature within the administration was also under scrutiny because of the recent dismissal of Trump’s national security adviser, retired Gen. Michael Flynn. Flynn was forced to resign Monday following reports he misled Pence about contacts with a Russian diplomat, which the vice president learned about through media accounts about two weeks after the president was informed.
Pence is also expected to meet with the leaders of Iraq and Afghanistan, where the US is embroiled in two separate wars. Trump has made clear his intention to defeat the Islamic State group. But he also said the US may get a second chance to take Iraqi oil as compensation for its efforts in the war-torn country, a notion rebuffed by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who will be meeting with the vice president.
Trump’s immigration and refugee ban has ruffled feathers with a number of Muslim-majority countries affected by the order currently tied up in court, including Iraq — a close ally in the fight against IS.
In Munich, the American allies were searching for clues from Pence as to how the Trump administration plans to deal with Russia in the aftermath of Flynn’s departure, US inquiries into Russia’s involvement in the presidential election and Trump’s past praise for Putin.
European countries along Russia’s border were rattled about deeper US-Russian ties after Trump suggested sanctions imposed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea could be eased in exchange for a nuclear weapons deal and the president referred to NATO as “obsolete” in an interview before his inauguration. Trump has since tempered his language, telling foreign leaders in phone calls about the importance of the NATO alliance.
NATO, or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is a military alliance of European and North American democracies created after World War II to strengthen international cooperation as a counter-balance to the rise of the Soviet Union. In 2014, the 28-member alliance created a rapid-reaction force to protect the most vulnerable NATO members against a confrontation with Russia.