For more than 50 years, the Munich Security Conference has served as a global forum on international security, with both public and private events involving heads of state, foreign and defence ministers, other notable government officials, international organisations and policy experts from more than 70 countries.
This year, however, was perhaps the most remarkable ever in terms of geopolitical crisis needing immediate attention, but with no apparent resolution in sight.
With an agenda that included everything from nuclear proliferation to civil wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen, the refugee crisis, terrorism, a resurgence of nationalism, and escalating regional rivalries, there was much to discuss, both publicly and behind closed doors where ideas are more likely to lead to action – sometimes good and sometimes not.
But also on the minds of those in attendance, particularly officials from the European Union, was the future of the United States’ foreign policy under the Trump administration.
Would the US continue its key role in helping to maintain a liberal world order or would it turn inward and adopt a non-interventionist foreign policy? And that’s a wholly justifiable concern given the frank and sometimes-bizarre rhetoric of US President Donald Trump towards Europe.
Consider his statements both as a candidate and since the inauguration, when he predicted the eventual downfall of the EU and called into question the importance of NATO, which he categorised as “obsolete”.
Add to those comments his repeated praise and character defence of Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as his not-so-subtle threats to “tear up” the Iran nuclear deal.
And if his foreign policy rhetoric alone isn’t enough to make heads turn, a controversial travel ban put into place without any inkling of interagency discussion beforehand calls into serious question the inner workings of his administration, not to mention American values.
The list of disturbing oratory and actions could quite possibly fill a book – something that is probably in the works as you read this – but you get the picture.
While it’s too early to say in which direction the Trump administration will ultimately go with its foreign policy – working with allies to maintain the status quo by continuing to pursue a liberal world order or reversing course by adopting a position of non-intervention – recent comments by Vice President Pence and other members of the president’s foreign policy team at least hint towards the former.
No doubt, Trump says exactly what’s on his mind, regardless of who may take offence. But some would argue that’s exactly why he won the election last November.
While there may have been a glimmer of hope that the rhetoric would subside after the election – or at least after the inauguration – it’s not likely we’ll see a move in that direction now.
Fortunately for the US’s allies, President Trump did have the good sense to put together a foreign policy team that should be able to steady the ship. Along with Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis have the credibility, moral courage and common sense to help President Trump avoid rough seas – if he listens to them. And that’s a big if.
‘The US will not abandon its allies’
If recent meetings in Europe are any indication, Trump’s foreign policy may be taking shape in a form more palatable to US’ allies than originally thought.
On his first official overseas visit, Vice President Pence sought to reassure an anxious forum in Munich that while the US was re-evaluating its long-term foreign policy objectives, it would not abandon its allies.
On NATO specifically, the vice president pledged that the US was “unwavering” in its commitment to European security and would stand firmly behind its Article 5 treaty obligation to come to the aid of any member state subject to armed attack.
But in return the US administration is also very clear that it expects the other 27 member states to stand behind their own, long-standing treaty obligations by contributing a minimum of 2 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) towards defence spending.
Quite notably, only four NATO members besides the US live up to that commitment – Greece, Britain, Estonia and Poland. France is the next closest with 1.8 percent and then it’s a rapid descent after that.
The administration’s argument for increased NATO spending was received with mixed results. While some member countries acknowledged the need for increased defence spending, others questioned the wisdom of tying it to GDP. The jury is still out on what happens next.
While Pence acknowledged Trump’s continued desire to ease tensions with Russia and look for areas where the two countries could realistically cooperate – especially in counterterrorism matters – he stopped short of offering an olive branch in Munich.
Indeed, speaking on Trump’s behalf, Pence vowed to hold Russia accountable in Ukraine. In what was an overt effort to ease the concerns of US’ European allies over an expansionist Russian foreign policy, he further demanded that Russia adhere the 2015 Minsk agreement before the lifting of any sanctions are even considered.
The US is holding Russia to task in Syria, too. While Trump previously looked to Russia for cooperation in combating the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) in Syria, Secretary of Defense Mattis stated unequivocally at the NATO conference in Brussels last week that the US was not ready to collaborate with Russia on a military level as long as they consider all rebel groups to be terrorists – a point also stressed by Secretary of State Tillerson during last week’s G-20 meeting in Bonn.
While it’s too early to say which direction the Trump administration will ultimately go with its foreign policy – working with allies to maintain the status quo by continuing to pursue a liberal world order or reversing course by adopting a position of non-intervention – recent comments by Vice President Pence and other members of the president’s foreign policy team at least hint towards the former.
Still, it’s an uphill battle for the US to convince its allies that actions speak louder than words. Time will tell. Let’s just hope sound minds and not rash rhetoric carry the day.
Martin Reardon is a senior vice president with the Soufan Group, a New York-based strategic security and intelligence consultancy, and senior director of Qatar International Academy for Security Studies. He is a 21-year veteran of the FBI and specialised in counterterrorism operations.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.