Making his debut on the world stage, Vice President Mike Pence is looking to reassure skeptical allies in Europe about U.S. foreign policy under President Donald Trump, who has made his "America First" mantra a centerpiece of his new administration.
Pence arrived Friday in Germany, his first overseas trip as vice president, on a mission to ease concerns about the U.S. commitment to multinational institutions like NATO and the European Union. The visit, which will include a stop in Brussels on Sunday and Monday, comes amid worries in Europe about Russian aggression, and amid lingering questions about Trump's relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and whether the new president may promote isolationist tendencies.
The dismissal of Trump's national security adviser, retired Gen. Michael Flynn, has also put Pence and his stature within the administration under new scrutiny. 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.
Landing on a cold, rainy evening, Pence was greeted by about two dozen members of the Bavarian Honor Guard and local dignitaries at Munich's airport. On Saturday, he will deliver a speech at the Munich Security Conference and then meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Pence is also scheduled to sit down with the leaders of the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko — countries facing the threat of Russian aggression — along with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.
"These are pretty blunt-spoken people and they are very nervous. Pence is looking like an adult," said James Jeffrey, a U.S. ambassador to Iraq during the Obama administration and a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "The question is will Trump listen to him?"
Pence was also expected to meet with the leaders of Iraq and Afghanistan, where the U.S. is embroiled in two separate wars. In the earliest days of his presidency, Trump declared his intention to fight and defeat the Islamic State group. But he also remarked that the U.S. 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 Pence.
Trump's immigration and refugee ban has also 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.
The American allies will be seeking clues from Pence as to how the Trump administration plans to deal with Russia in the aftermath of Flynn's departure, U.S. 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 U.S.-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.
But Trump cast doubt as a candidate about whether the U.S. might fulfill its NATO obligations if he won the White House, saying in a July interview that he would decide whether to protect the Baltic republics against Russian aggression based on whether those countries "have fulfilled their obligations to us."
Pence will travel to Brussels, Belgium, on Sunday for meetings related to NATO and the European Union. His Monday itinerary includes face-to-face meetings with EU Council President Donald Tusk, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
As part of his message, Pence is expected to press allies in Europe to raise their defense budgets to NATO's target of 2 percent of GDP. Germany has been wary of the costs and pointed to its expenditures from supporting refugees and investing in international development.
As Indiana's governor, Pence led a number of foreign trade missions, and he traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan as a member of Congress. But he is just beginning his relationships with foreign leaders and aides said the trip was also aimed at establishing personal ties with U.S. partners.
"There's considerable concern, but because they don't know (Pence) they're willing to give him a chance," said Julianne Smith, a former deputy national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden. "This is the opportunity for the administration to reassure very skittish allies across the European continent and beyond."
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