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Pence And Mattis Commit To NATO, But Ask Europe For More Help


Top administration officials in Munich at an annual security conference - they're trying to reassure European allies that President Trump won't abandon them. Vice President Mike Pence told the audience, Russia must be held accountable for its actions in Ukraine, even as Trump searches for new common ground with Moscow. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Munich.

Soraya, thanks so much for being with us.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: You're welcome. Good morning.

SIMON: And fill us in on what Vice President Pence said.

NELSON: Well, he's focused a lot on NATO. And he assured the alliance that America's, quote, "unwavering commitment" would continue. But he also pointed out that only 1 of every 6 member states is actually funding their defense budget as legally required.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: The promise to share the burden of our defense has gone unfulfilled for too many for too long, and it erodes the very foundation of our alliance.

NELSON: But there was a lot of pushback from the European side on that, including by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany who suggested it would be a mistake to focus only on the numbers. The NATO secretary general, meanwhile, rejected that. Pressure by Trump is why the alliance members were actually putting in more money now. He says that last year, NATO spending increased by $10 billion, or nearly 4 percent.

SIMON: Were, near as you can tell, Soraya, European allies reassured by Vice President Pence's remarks saying that the Trump administration supports NATO wholeheartedly and the appearance by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis?

NELSON: Well, it's pretty striking that there didn't seem to be that response or warmth that maybe he was looking for. He didn't do a question-and-answer session, which is really unusual here at the security conference. There was tepid applause for the vice president, and that spoke volumes when compared to the reaction to Merkel, who spoke immediately before he did.

There were also a number of comments from European leaders that seemed to be loosely aimed at the Trump administration, for example, Merkel calling for improved multilateral cooperation as the only way to address the world's woes.

SIMON: The vice president also told the assembled that the international community needs to hold Russia accountable for its actions in Ukraine. Now, this comes at a time in this country when people are debating sanctions and did the Trump administration promise that they would lift sanctions. I wonder if the vice president got specific on what holding accountable means.

NELSON: He didn't really say anything other than that Russia must abide by the Minsk agreement, and that's certainly something that everybody is saying. It's aimed at ending fighting in eastern Ukraine. There probably was a lot more said behind closed doors, as he met with Chancellor Angela Merkel as well as - he was planning to meet with leaders of the Baltic states and Ukraine as well today.

SIMON: And I gather that Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said it wasn't us meddling in the U.S. elections.

NELSON: Yeah. He didn't directly refer to Pence in his comments, but he did criticize NATO expansion and individual European leaders. He says that what Russia is looking for is a, quote, "pragmatic" relationship with the U.S. as well as mutual respect and understanding of each country's special responsibility for global stability.

SIMON: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Munich.

Thanks so much for being with us.

NELSON: You're welcome, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.