Alliances

'UNWAVERING' COMMITMENT: Pence tries to assure Europe that US will support partnership

United States Vice President Mike Pence speaks during the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 18, 2017.

United States Vice President Mike Pence speaks during the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 18, 2017.  (AP)

Vice President Pence on Saturday worked to assure NATO allies that the United States would be “unwavering” in its commitment to the trans-Atlantic alliance.

Pence, in his first overseas trip as vice president, told the Munich Security Conference that President Donald Trump intends to "stand with Europe." He sought to calm nervous European allies who remain concerned about Russian aggression and have been alarmed by the U.S. president’s positive statements about his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

"Today, on behalf of President Trump, I bring you this assurance: The United States of America strongly supports NATO and will be unwavering in its commitment to our trans-Atlantic alliance," Pence said.

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During his address to foreign diplomats and security officials also sought to reassure international partners who worry that Trump may pursue isolationist tendencies.

Pence said the U.S. would demand that Russia honor a 2015 peace deal agreed upon in Minsk, Belarus, to end violence in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russia-backed separatists.

"Know this: The United States will continue to hold Russia accountable, even as we search for new common ground which as you know President Trump believes can be found," Pence said.

Pence met afterward with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who addressed the conference just before the vice president. Merkel stressed the need to maintain international alliances and told the audience, with Pence seated a few feet away, that NATO is "in the American interest."

The vice president’s comments come just weeks after Trump called NATO obsolete, according to a Bloomberg Politics reports about an interview the then-president elect gave to a German paper.

 “It’s obsolete, first because it was designed many, many years ago,” Trump said. “Secondly, countries aren’t paying what they should” and NATO “didn’t deal with terrorism.”

On Saturday, Pence said the U.S. would demand that Russia honor a 2015 peace agreement aimed to end fighting in Ukraine between government forces and Russian-backed separatists.

"Know this: The United States will continue to hold Russia accountable, even as we search for new common ground which as you know President Trump believes can be found," Pence said.

Pence also reinforced the Trump administration's message that NATO members must spend more on defense.

NATO's 28-member countries committed in 2014 to spending 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense within a decade. But only the U.S. and four other members of the post-World War II military coalition are meeting the standard, Pence said.

Failure to meet the commitment, he said, "erodes the very foundation of our alliance."

"Let me be clear on this point: The president of the United States expects our allies to keep their word, to fulfill this commitment and, for most, that means the time has come to do more," Pence said.

James Jeffrey, a U.S. ambassador to Iraq during the Obama administration, said Pence looked "like an adult.” The question is will Trump listen to him?"

The visit, which will include a stop in Brussels on Sunday and Monday, comes amid worries in Europe about Russian aggression and Trump's relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Pence has also scheduled meetings Saturday with the leaders of the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko — countries dealing with the threat of Russian incursion. Pence also planned to meet with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.

"The vice president has sent reassuring messages through his own engagement but that hasn't been enough to dispel the concerns that you see in many parts of Europe," Jeff Rathke, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said. "There are such grave challenges that the U.S. and Europe faces that it only heightens the desire for additional clarity from Washington."

The Associated Press contributed to this report