MUNICH — Vice President Mike Pence and his immediate predecessor, Joe Biden, on Saturday offered competing visions of American leadership abroad, presaging major divides and campaign cudgels heading into the 2020 presidential race.
“When you hear President Trump ask our NATO allies to live up to the commitments they’ve made to our common defense, that’s what we call being leader of the free world,” Pence told the Munich Security Conference.
“Leadership in the absence of people who are with you is not leadership,” Biden said a few hours later.
Pence urged Europeans to act as a bulwark against Russia and China and warned of the espionage threat from Chinese telecom companies. Europe should scrap the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline and cease buying blacklisted Russian weapons, he said.
“We cannot ensure the defense of the West if our allies are dependent on the East,” Pence said.
Biden savaged the administration on its domestic policies. The separation migrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border attested to a “struggle for America’s soul,” he said. And drawing a stark contrast abroad with the Trump administration, Biden praised NATO and the European Union.
“You’re never allowed to disagree with your brothers and sisters in public,” Biden said. “Today, because of, I think, a lack of leadership coming from the other side of the Atlantic, we find ourselves in a different place and it’s uncomfortable.”
Trump has frustrated European allies throughout his presidency with his hostility to a 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which they credit with defusing a regional nuclear crisis. More recently, Trump irritated European colleagues with an abrupt reversal of his administration’s Syria strategy, announcing without warning that the United States would withdraw from Syria.
Biden received a warmer welcome from the audience. And the event produced other signs of European allies’ discomfort with the Trump foreign policy approach. German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen, for instance, declared that Berlin would not be “neutral” in the great power competition between the United States and China.
“NATO is more than just a military alliance,” she said Friday through a translator. “It is a political alliance. And as a political alliance, we are faced with what is a prominent feature of the new security feature, the return of great power competition. Our American friends recognized that early on and we too understand this now.”