German defence chief slams Trump, without mentioning him by name
Germany’s defence chief on Friday hit President Trump’s dismissive attitude toward Washington’s European allies, giving a frosty reception to US envoys at the largest conclave of US and European officials since the inauguration of the New York businessman.
Speaking to a packed hall that included US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen hammered Trump’s attitudes toward Russia without ever mentioning the US leader by name.
“There can be no policy of equidistance between allies on one side and those who on the other question our borders, our values and the principles of international law,” von der Leyen said to applause at the Munich Security Conference, where Europe’s senior security leaders were gathering to figure out how to respond to Trump.
“We must pursue finding a reliable coexistence with Russia together instead of going over our partners’ heads in a bilateral relationship,” she said.
Trump has offered the most direct challenge to the transatlantic security alliance in its post-World War II history, calling NATO “obsolete,” welcoming Britain’s decision to split from the European Union and holding back from criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who in 2014 redrew European borders by annexing Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
In comments shortly before his inauguration, Trump equated his relationships with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying he would start off with open minds to both of them, then re-evaluate based on how they treat him.
For his part, Mattis continued his warnings to European partners, even as he assured them that NATO’s mutual defence agreements are a “bedrock commitment.”
“To confront the threats facing our alliance, we must recognise not just strategic realities, but also political realities. President Trump came into office and has thrown now his full support to NATO,” Mattis told the hall in remarks immediately after von der Leyen spoke. “It is a fair demand that all who benefit from the best alliance in the world carry their proportionate share of the necessary costs to defend our freedoms.”
Mattis and Kelly have been dispatched to Europe this week to reassure nervous allies about Trump’s policies, even as they reaffirmed some of his toughest messages on the need for greater European defence spending. Vice President Mike Pence plans to arrive in Munich Friday evening as he kicks off a miniature tour of European capitals.
But many European leaders are responding to Trump’s push by agreeing to spend more while also saying that all Western allies - including the United States - must not abandon the basic values that helped create a Western security backbone in the years since 1945.
Only four nations apart from the United States meet NATO commitments for defence spending. Germany, Europe’s largest economy, is among the laggards, and it would need to nearly double its budgetary commitments to get there, ballooning its military into Europe’s most powerful.
Without dismissing the spending guidelines, von der Leyen said that NATO’s strength was far more than an economic balance-sheet.
“Burden sharing is a matter of funding, of money, but sharing the burden is also much more than what can be expressed in euros and in dollars,” von der Leyen said. “To share a burden is to first of all share the principle to stand up for one another. Without exception.”
She also hit against Trump’s stated affinity for torture and campaign-trail rhetoric that appeared to dispense with the need to avoid civilian deaths in prosecuting wars in the Middle East.
The alliance must be “bound by human dignity in all it does,” von der Leyen said. “This leaves no room for torture. It means avoiding civilian casualties at all cost.”
“We must beware of turning this fight into one against Islam and Muslims per se. Otherwise we run the risk of deepening the trenches from which terrorism grow,” she added.