BRUSSELS — In a major speech on Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tried to explain one of the abiding conundrums of the Trump administration: How does a nationalist lead on the international stage?
The answer, he said, is to jettison some treaties and institutions while bolstering others. Among the institutions that Mr. Pompeo criticized were the United Nations, the European Union, the Organization of American States and the African Union, but he embraced NATO — which President Trump has harshly criticized — as an “indispensable institution.”
The speech, delivered in a palatial concert hall in Brussels, was intended to explain Mr. Trump’s worldview to a deeply skeptical audience, including many Europeans who see Mr. Trump as undermining international agreements that have kept the peace in Europe and enhanced prosperity.
“Even our European friends sometimes say we’re not acting in the free world’s interest. This is just plain wrong,” Mr. Pompeo said, adding that “under President Trump, we are not abandoning international leadership or our friends in the international system. Indeed, quite the contrary.”
But since the end of the Cold War, the international order “failed us, and it failed you,” he said. “Multilateralism has become viewed as an end unto itself. The more treaties we sign, the safer we supposedly are. The more bureaucrats we have, the better the job gets done.”
Of the United Nations, he asked, “Does it continue to serve its mission faithfully?”
Mr. Pompeo called Britain’s decision to leave the European Union a “political wake-up call” for the bloc, which is based in Brussels. He then asked whether the European Union “is ensuring that the interests of countries and their citizens are placed before those of bureaucrats here in Brussels?” Someone in the audience shouted an unequivocal, “Yes,” a response Mr. Pompeo ignored.
The World Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization also came in for sharp criticism.
“International bodies must help facilitate cooperation that bolsters the security and values of the free world, or they must be reformed or eliminated,” he said. After the short speech, Mr. Pompeo took no questions.
Responses ranged from tepid to hostile. In addition to Mr. Trump’s regular criticism of NATO, the United States and the European Union are fiercely at odds over the Iran nuclear deal, which Mr. Trump has pulled out of. Washington has restored harsh sanctions on Tehran, while America’s main European allies are doing their best to preserve the deal and find ways to go around U.S. sanctions.
Washington and Brussels are also engaged in sometimes vicious negotiations about trade as well as American sanctions on European steel on the grounds of “national security,’’ whereas the Europeans do not see themselves as a national security threat to the United States.
The Trump administration is also threatening new tariffs on imported cars, all in an effort to reduce the American trade deficit with the European Union. And Washington has sharply criticized Germany for supporting the Nordstream II, a gas pipeline from Russia to Germany that is now under construction.
Mr. Pompeo’s challenge to the European Union was a surprisingly undiplomatic comment from America’s chief diplomat, making some European officials wonder what the American response would be if a European foreign minister or the bloc’s chief diplomat, Federica Mogherini, criticized the fissures in the United States in a public speech in Washington.
A spokesman for the European Union refuted the claim that the bloc and its administrators fail the member states and their people. Margaritis Schinas, chief spokesman of the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, explained its governing structure and system of popular elections, adding pointedly, “I’m simplifying for those who do not know us.”
“That’s how it works, O.K.?” Mr. Schinas said, throwing his hands in the air. “So for those people who come to Brussels and coin an opinion without knowing how our system works, that’s how our system works, and that’s our reply.”
Ian Lesser, director of the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, which organized the event, said: “Clearly this was a speech intended to signal that multilateralism wasn’t dead, it simply needed to be revived. There may be a sharp debate about how he suggested to do that. But all in all, I don’t think it was a destructive message about multilateralism per se.”
Some listeners were less sanguine, like David Fouquet, a professor at the Free University of Brussels.
“I was struck by the fact that he put the European Union on his administration’s hit list of bad actors,” he said. “I’m in disbelief: the tone, the lack of sensitivity to the place where he was. His predecessors built and created these institutions. Although he professes to want to strengthen them, I think he is undermining them.”
A Spanish representative to the European Union described the speech as “a very compelling case on the current administration’s plans for a more national oriented” set of policies — while diplomatically avoiding saying what he thought of those policies.
Mr. Pompeo’s audience listened for clues about the future of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, known as the I.N.F. treaty, which the Trump administration has threatened to jettison despite European opposition. For years, American officials have maintained that Russia was violating the treaty, which banned land-based missiles of certain ranges.
“When treaties are broken, the violators must be confronted, and the treaties must be fixed or discarded,” Mr. Pompeo said, in what will surely be interpreted as a threat to the agreement. “Words should mean something.”
The I.N.F. treaty is “a critical issue right now,” said Brig. Gen. Arild Heiestad of Norway, a deputy military representative to NATO. “The U.S. should continue to stand by the treaty provided the other side does the same — but we know they aren’t, so it’s a complicated issue.”
Mr. Lesser said that Mr. Pompeo’s counterparts “will try to understand the timing and the implications of the withdrawal from the I.N.F., if indeed that’s what happens. But for now I heard no signal suggesting that America is prepared to withdraw from the nuclear treaty, unless of course something happens on the Russian side, but I don’t think that’s very likely.”
Mr. Pompeo said there were some international institutions that “work in American interests and yours, in service of our shared values.” But he listed only three such bodies: NATO, the Proliferation Security Initiative and the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, a bank messaging service that is widely known as Swift.
John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, threatened to penalize Swift, which gives financial institutions a secure way to wire money around the world, if it did not remove Iran’s banks, including its central bank, from the system.
Despite opposition from the European Union, Swift acceded to American demands and thus passed muster with Mr. Pompeo.
“This is an excellent example of an international institution acting responsibly,” Mr. Pompeo said.
Although NATO also received praise from Mr. Pompeo, he repeated Mr. Trump’s frequent complaint that the other 27 nations in the alliance need to spend more on defense. He then announced that he would host other foreign ministers for a meeting in Washington in April to celebrate the alliance’s 70th anniversary.
It would be the first time that a major NATO birthday was celebrated without heads of state. .
NATO officials said that there may be another summit meeting of leaders later in the year that could be portrayed as being timed for the anniversary.
In closing, Mr. Pompeo cited a quote from George Marshall, who as secretary of state after World War II helped to design much of the international system that Mr. Trump has so derided, that “international action cannot replace self-help.”
“It’s not popular to buck the status quo,” Mr. Pompeo said. “But too much is at stake not to. This is the reality which President Trump so viscerally understands.”
“President Trump knows that when America leads, peace and prosperity follow,” he added. “He knows that if we don’t lead, others will.”
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