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Trump is rattling Europe. Now Harris is going there to try to calm nervous allies

Vice President Harris, seen here in December 2023, will be making a major address on Friday at the Munich Security Conference.
Kamran Jebreili
/
AP
Vice President Harris, seen here in December 2023, will be making a major address on Friday at the Munich Security Conference.

Vice President Harris faces a daunting task this week: try to make the case to European leaders that America is an ally they can count on through thick and thin, despite some recent evidence to the contrary.

In the past week, the Republican front-runner for the presidential race said he would give what sounded like a green light to Russia to attack NATO allies that don't boost military spending. Meanwhile, Republican leaders in the House of Representatives have all but nixed billions of dollars of aid that Ukraine needs to continue its fight against Moscow's invasion.

Since taking office, President Biden has been telling his European counterparts that "America is back" as he has worked to shore up relationships tested by his isolationist predecessor. And Biden had promised U.S. backing to Ukraine for "as long as it takes."

It falls to Harris — Biden's top emissary at this year's Munich Security Conference — to provide assurances, said former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

"The key to our ability to be a world leader is not just our military power, not just our diplomatic power, but our credibility, our word," Panetta said in an interview with NPR.

"And if the United States can't back up its word in providing aid to Ukraine, Taiwan, Israel ... because of various conflicts here in Washington, it raises questions," Panetta said.

Vice President Harris arrives for a meeting on the sidelines of last year's Munich Security Conference with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Feb. 18, 2023.
Thomas Kienzle / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Vice President Harris arrives for a meeting on the sidelines of last year's Munich Security Conference with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Feb. 18, 2023.

After Trump's "America First" ethos, Biden pushed for "America's Back"

It's against this backdrop of uncertainty that Harris will take the stage in Munich on Friday to make what's being billed as a major foreign policy speech where she will defend Biden's track record.

Biden faced the same audience in Munich when he first took office — that year, the conference was virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic — and vowed he would chart a different course after the "America First" years of Donald Trump's presidency.

"One of President Biden's top priorities when he came into office was rebuilding and revitalizing the trans-Atlantic relationship," said Amanda Sloat, the former senior director for Europe on Biden's National Security Council, in an interview.

Trump had slapped tariffs on allies, withdrew from the Paris climate accord, challenged NATO partners on their defense spending and defended Russian President Vladimir Putin despite U.S. intelligence concerns about Russian interference in American elections.

When Russia invaded Ukraine two years ago, Biden marshaled a unified response from G7 and NATOpartners. He coordinated sweeping sanctions on Russia, sent more U.S. troops to the eastern flank of NATO, made an unprecedented visit to Kyiv in the midst of the war and sent billions of dollars in weapons and funding to Ukraine.

"The NATO alliance is bigger, stronger and more vital than it has been in 75 years — having just added Finland and about to add Sweden," Jake Sullivan, Biden's national security adviser, told reporters on Wednesday, noting partners had boosted their military spending too.

Harris will meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Saturday while they are in Munich, the White House said.

Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump on Jan. 23 in Nashua, New Hampshire.
Alex Wong / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump on Jan. 23 in Nashua, New Hampshire.

Trump is back in the headlines, making European leaders concerned

But European allies are nervous about the presidential election this November. Trump has tightened his grip on the Republican Party and exerted his influence on Republicans in Congress. Then came his comments last weekend, when he said Russia ought to "do whatever the hell they want" to allies that don't contribute their fair share to NATO.

That rattled European leaders, said Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador who chaired the Munich Security Conference for years. "Let me be very frank: I don't think that it is in the interest of America's European allies to see Donald Trump reelected," he told NPR.

While Harris can make a strong case for Biden's actions, it's hard for her to answer what happens if she and Biden lose in November.

"The giant question in the room is, given the comments made by former President Trump, particularly over the last weekend — if Trump is reelected, will the commitment that Vice President Harris will certainly be articulating very forcefully, will that remain?" said Stephen Flanagan, a Europe expert at the Rand Corp. who has worked under both Republican and Democratic administrations.

Ischinger said Europeans are increasingly thinking about a Plan B — how to defend themselves if there's a future in which they cannot depend on the United States. But experts say that, realistically, Europe isn't prepared for that scenario anytime in the near future.

Harris speaks at an event in Big Bend, Wis., on Jan. 22.
Morry Gash / AP
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AP
Harris speaks at an event in Big Bend, Wis., on Jan. 22.

Harris is in the spotlight too

There's a lot at stake for Harris herself in Munich too. She has spoken at the conference twice before, but this trip comes amid growing questions about Biden's age. If elected for a second term, Biden would be 82 on Inauguration Day. That puts more focus on Harris' ability to step into the role, if the need arises.

"There's going to be more attention focused on the possibility of succession than there would be if you had presidential candidates on the two tickets who were in their 40s or 50s," said Joel Goldstein of Saint Louis University, a constitutional lawyer known for his expertise on the office of the vice presidency.

Harris is newer to the diplomatic scene than many other Washington politicians. She was only a senator for four years before she became vice president but has worked to form relationships on the world stage the past few years, traveling to Africa, Asia, Central America, the Middle East and Europe.

However, many of the administration's most difficult diplomatic negotiations have fallen to other key members of Biden's inner circle, such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who also will be in Munich.

Harris will be watched closely, her meetings a sign of her command of the issues. "She'll need to really step up to the plate in terms of the messages that she sends," said Rachel Rizzo of the Atlantic Council.

"It's trips like this to Munich that are very high level, that are very important to the U.S. role in Europe, that Europeans will look at her as a pillar of strength and stability and continuity for the United States."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
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