Three meetings in Europe last week showcased the shifting alignments in world politics. It’s a fluid situation that highlights both opportunities and challenges for U.S. diplomacy.
Naturally, Iran was a focus of debate across the board. In Warsaw, a gathering of some 50 nations convened by Poland and the United States addressed turmoil in the Middle East, where Vice President Mike Pence described a “universal view” that “Iran has actually become more aggressive” since its 2015 nuclear agreement with the United States, Europe, China and Russia.
A major and welcome feature of the Warsaw conference was that it included, for the first time in modern history, both Arab foreign ministers from a number of nations and Israel’s Premier Benjamin Netanyahu. A video of one meeting, released by Mr. Netanyahu, shows Arab officials from Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf nations saying they view Iran as a more serious threat than any other and an obstacle to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue. That is an important recognition as the United States could use some partners in the Middle East as tensions with Iran continue to build.
At both the Warsaw conference and a nearly concurrent meeting in Munich on trans-Atlantic defense cooperation, Vice President Pence rightly called on Europe to join the United States in demanding a rewrite of the nuclear agreement to include missile developments and stricter terms against expansion of Iran’s nuclear enrichment capabilities. It’s in their best interests to help restrain Iran’s troubling ambitions.
While Mr. Pence’s remarks in Munich were not received warmly, applause greeted a speech by former Vice President Joe Biden in which he called President Donald Trump’s open disagreements with Europe about its failure to meet NATO defense spending goals or change its protective tariffs and barriers against U.S. industrial and agricultural products “an embarrassment.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel gained a standing ovation with a speech that was a critical point-by-point review of European differences with the United States including Iran, exposing some cracks in that alliance. But The Washington Post reported that Ms. Merkel seemed most “aggrieved by U.S. threats to raise tariffs on German cars.” Mr. Trump is considering raising tariffs on imported cars from Europe — mainly Germany — to 25 percent if the Europeans refuse to make concessions on their discriminatory tariffs and trade barriers, which include a 10 percent tariff on cars made in the United States. The current U.S. tariff on European cars is 2.5 percent.
Germany also has stiff-armed Mr. Trump’s demand that it raise defense spending to the NATO target of 2 percent of GDP. It’s a wholly reasonable request from the United States that the Germans certainly can afford.
Europe, led by Germany, has rejected British demands for changes to a one-sided agreement on Britain’s attempt to withdraw from the European Union. Last Friday Mr. Trump, in what may have been intended as a warning to Germany and Europe, said his administration is making progress on a trade deal with Britain. Implicitly it would be one that discriminated against Europe unless the Europeans are ready to negotiate.
In a more ominous development, Russia, Turkey and Iran held a meeting in Sochi on how to carve up Syria in a peace agreement. The trio agreed to a Turkish buffer zone in which Turkey is free to pursue Syrian Kurds who have been the main allies of the United States in fighting ISIS in Syria. They also agreed on Turkey’s acquisition of advanced Russian air defenses, a move that unfortunately could lead to a decisive break between Turkey and NATO.
There was some good news, however, as the Warsaw conference showed strong regional support for U.S. goals in the Middle East. Fundamental sympathies between the United States and Europe also suggest that the current sources of friction between them, especially over trade, will be mostly and amicably resolved.
But the conflicts with Russia, Iran and now Turkey are profound. At a minimum Mr. Trump should put his plans to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria on hold until Turkey changes its mind about the Kurds.