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2024 Munich Security Conference

Vance brings Trump worldview to Munich

MUNICH — Former President Donald Trump’s possible return to power loomed large over the Munich Security Conference, with European and American elected officials alike condemning both his recent comments about NATO and opposition to new Ukraine aid.

Unlike in previous years, though, Trump actually had a de facto representative at the annual gathering. Enter Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio).

Vance, a freshman senator who could very well be considered Trump’s closest Senate ally, had his first big moment on the world stage on Sunday — possibly even an audition for the vice presidency.

The Ohio Republican was given a speaking role at the conference, which surprised many lawmakers here. His views on Ukraine, NATO, European burden-sharing and Trump served as a counterpoint to the overwhelmingly pro-Ukraine speakers, which ranged from heads of state to legislators and diplomats.

“My political perspective is maybe underrepresented among the Munich Security Conference,” Vance told us here. “My political perspective is, I believe, the majority political perspective in the United States.”

Vance believes the U.S. foreign policy focus must pivot to the Indo-Pacific region. To Vance, that justifies Trump’s demand that European nations get more aggressive with their own defense. The United States doesn’t have the resources to fight several multi-front wars, Vance added, and it’s time for the Western coalition to push for a negotiated settlement in Ukraine — one that involves ceding territory to Russia.

“How many more Ukrainians get killed before we get there?” Vance said. “The West doesn’t make enough munitions to support an indefinite war. Ukraine doesn’t have enough manpower to support an indefinite war. We have to be realistic.”

Pelosi weighs in: Bipartisan majorities in Congress disagree and believe it’s in the U.S. interest to ensure that Ukraine defeats Russia. Western leaders largely believe that if Russian President Vladimir Putin is successful in Ukraine, he won’t stop there. And that puts all of NATO at risk.

“If the U.S. is casual about NATO, then they [Europe] have to take responsibility in a different way, which they seem prepared to do,” former Speaker Nancy Pelosi told us. “But we’re in NATO for our own interests… It’s not charity.”

The idea of giving up territory to Russia is sacrilegious at a gathering like this one. It’s not something the Ukrainian government is remotely close to entertaining. There was, however, a real debate at the conference about whether a Ukrainian victory is even possible at this point and what that would look like.

There’s also broad bipartisan agreement that Europe should be boosting its defense capabilities, just not for the reasons Vance suggests.

Rutte to the rescue: Interestingly, Vance’s push for Europe to become more self-sufficient got a significant boost from Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who also happens to be the likely next secretary-general of NATO.

Rutte said Trump is right that European nations need to increase their defense spending.

“We have to do this because we want to do this, because it is in our interest,” Rutte said. “All that whining and moaning about Trump, I hear that constantly over the last couple of days. Let’s stop doing that.”

Vance was part of a CODEL led by Sens. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), although his foreign policy views are way out of step with the others.

Here’s how Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) described the dissonance to his European counterparts:

Vance didn’t join the rest of the Senate delegation for a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Saturday. Vance told us he had other meetings and didn’t think he would learn anything new.

— Andrew Desiderio

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