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Trump team hits the road to calm global concerns

Trump team hits the road to calm global concerns
US Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis delivering an opening statement during Day 1 of the Munich Security Conference in Germany. (Munich Security Conference)

Led by Vice President Mike Pence, the Trump administration is seeking to calm tensions among anxious allies at a high-level security summit in Germany after weeks of puzzling statements from Washington that threatened to reorder decades of U.S. foreign policy.

The annual Munich Security Conference represents a major opportunity for the fledgling administration to clarify U.S. foreign policy and security priorities to heads of state, foreign ministers and others worried about Trump's policy shifts toward Europe, Russia, China and the Middle East.

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Although Defense Secretary James Mattis, who is here with Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly and several members of Congress, gave opening remarks on Friday, it will fall to Pence to allay concerns about Trump's freewheeling style and turbulent White House when he addresses the summit on Saturday.

Pence also will sit down with several European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who have yet to meet senior members of a new administration that has been distracted by infighting and leaks, including details of Trump's phone quarrels with the leaders of Mexico and Australia.

"The first theme is reassurance," said a senior White House foreign policy advisor. "We're there to reassure Europe's role both as our indispensable partner and the commitment to our allies."

Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to the United States who now runs the Munich summit, said Pence's appearance was highly anticipated.

"We're all hoping the American vice president will give a statement on ... all of these questions that we in the past weeks have wondered: 'What does America under Trump really want?' "

The dismay of European leaders who have converged here is palpable, particularly from the Baltic states. They see an increasingly aggressive Russia on their borders, and are fearful of Trump's oft-stated admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin two years after his troops seized Crimea and began backing armed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

"His uncritical embrace of Putin, who most European Allies view as a thug who poses a grave danger to European security, is deeply disconcerting," said Ivo H. Daalder, former U.S. ambassador to NATO and current president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. "Alliances are based on trust, and that trust has been severely tested."

More than anything, European leaders are hoping for firm answers from a White House that has challenged the network of multinational alliances, including NATO, that has kept most of the continent at peace since World War II.

Without naming Trump, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen criticized the president's support of Britain's decision to leave the European Union —  and prediction that other nations will follow —  as well as his repeated criticism of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

"Our American friends know well that your tone on Europe and NATO has a direct impact on the cohesion of our continent," Von der Leyen said. "A stable European Union is also in America's interest, as is a strong, unified, determined NATO."

Leaders also are confused by the Trump administration's whiplash foreign policy declarations on an array of sensitive issues.

Weeks after calling the NATO military alliance "obsolete," for example, Trump this month vowed "strong support" for the 28-nation military alliance, a position Mattis echoed at a meeting of NATO defense ministers this week in Brussels.

And weeks after taking a call from the leader of Taiwan and publicly questioning the "one China" policy, a bedrock of Sino-U.S. relations that recognizes Beijing's position that there is only one Chinese government, Trump did an about-face in a call with the president of China and publicly affirmed the policy.

This week, Trump appeared to reject decades of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East by saying the United States would no longer insist on creation of two states for two peoples to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The next day, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations clarified that Trump was "absolutely" committed to the two-state policy.

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Beyond that, foreign leaders are concerned about the turmoil in Trump's national security team.

Trump this week dismissed his national security advisor, Michael Flynn, for being untruthful about his contacts with Russia's ambassador, and has struggled to find a replacement, leaving the National Security Council adrift nearly a month into his presidency. High-level staffing gaps also have hampered operations at the State Department and other federal agencies.

At a rambling news conference Thursday, Trump blamed the growing concerns on Capitol Hill about alleged contacts between members of his campaign and Russian authorities during last year's presidential race for thwarting his hopes of thawing relations with Moscow.

Trump argued that he would benefit politically if he got much tougher on Russia, mentioning reports of a Russian spy ship that has sailed up the East Coast in recent days. The ship was in international waters and its passage was routine, Coast Guard officials said.

"The greatest thing I could do is shoot that ship that's 30 miles offshore right out of the water," Trump said.

Most of Europe now views Trump with "considered wariness, prompting cautious engagement," said Joe Devanny, a research fellow with the International Center for Security Analysis at King's College London.

He said leaders worry that further damaging revelations will emerge about the Trump team's contacts with Russia. "These could beset and distract the White House for months, at a critical time in international security," he said.

In his remarks Friday, Mattis sought to reassure Europeans of Trump's adherence to traditional foreign policy goals, including the threats posed by Russia and terrorist groups.

"We all see our community of nations under threat on multiple fronts as the arc of instability builds on NATO's periphery and beyond," Mattis said. "The transatlantic bond remains our strongest bulwark against instability and violence."

Whether comments like those will be sufficient to calm European nerves isn't clear.

"To a certain extent, this is mission impossible," said Derek Chollet, executive vice president at the German Marshall Fund, a transatlantic think tank. "People will be very happy to hear the reassuring words, but they are still deeply worried. The question is, 'Do any of these people speak for Trump?'"

At least one of them promised to speak to the president.

In a separate trip to Germany, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met in Bonn with the foreign ministers of the G-20, the organization of the world's top 20 economies. On Friday, the group discussed the civil war in Syria, and participants said they largely endorsed a continuation of Obama administration efforts to seek a political solution under a U.N. framework.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said he welcomed a chance to work with Tillerson.

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"I believe it is important and absolutely instrumental to have a close dialogue with the United States on the Syria issue," he said.

Later after a bilateral session with Angelino Alfano, Italy's foreign minister, Tillerson briefly entertained reporters' questions.

Asked what he had accomplished in his debut trip as America's top diplomat, Tillerson was characteristically terse. "Met a lot of people, made a lot of new friends. It was a full schedule," he said.

He said he had many messages to deliver to Trump. Asked to describe one, he replied, "Not until I share it with him."

Hennigan reported from Munich and Wilkinson reported from Washington.

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