MUNICH • United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday traded barbs with European leaders over diminishing Western influence, rejecting as "grossly over-exaggerated" their claims that Washington had retreated from the global stage.
Speaking at the Munich Security Conference, Mr Pompeo sought to assuage European anxiety over the transatlantic bond under an unpredictable US President Donald Trump. "The West is winning and we're winning together," he said.
But he was immediately contradicted by French President Emmanuel Macron, who warned of "a weakening of the West".
The annual gathering of world leaders, generals and diplomats to discuss security challenges has been dominated by fears over the West's diminishing role in the face of a more assertive China and Russia.
In his opening speech a day earlier, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier suggested that the US rejected "even the idea of an international community" and was acting "at the expense of neighbours and partners".
"Those statements don't reflect reality," Mr Pompeo retorted.
"I'm happy to report that the death of the transatlantic alliance is grossly over-exaggerated," he added, paraphrasing a famous Mark Twain quote.
He said that Washington was playing a key role in keeping Europe safe by reinforcing Nato's eastern flank on the border with Russia, as well as leading a multinational effort to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group.
"Is this an America that 'rejects the international community'?" he asked. "The free West has a brighter future than illiberal alternatives," he added, urging allies to have "confidence" in the transatlantic bond.
Mr Pompeo stressed the need to work together against threats posed by Russia's territorial ambitions, China's military build-up in the South China Sea and Iran's "campaigns of terror" through proxy conflicts in the Middle East.
Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg joined Mr Pompeo in voicing dismay at the gathering's pessimistic tone. "There is a competition out there in so many areas, with so many different actors, but simply lamenting that we have lost our way will not provide us with a way forward," Mr Stoltenberg told the audience. "Europe and North America are indispensable partners."
But Mr Macron echoed German concerns. The US was undergoing "a rethink of its relationship with Europe", he said, strengthening his belief that the continent had to take charge of its own destiny.
"We need a European strategy that renews us and turn us into a strategic political power," he added.
Meantime, China's State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi dismissed US criticism of his country as "lies" yesterday, shortly after Mr Pompeo criticised its foreign policy and desire for "empire".
"All these accusations against China are lies, not based on facts," Mr Wang told the conference. "But if we replace the subject of the lie from China to America, maybe those lies become facts."
US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper, speaking immediately after Mr Pompeo and before Mr Wang, accused Beijing of a "nefarious strategy" to infiltrate and dominate crucial western infrastructure through telecommunications giant Huawei.
Washington has pushed hard for countries to bar Huawei from building their next generation 5G mobile networks, claiming that its equipment can be used to spy for Beijing.
But key allies, including Britain and France, have resisted the pressure so far, agreeing to impose restrictions without going so far as to ban the company.
In his speech at the security conference, the French President said that Europe's policy of defiance towards Russia in recent years had failed and as nobody wanted to confront Moscow directly, the only option was to have a closer dialogue to resolve differences.
"I hear the defiance of all our partners, I'm not mad, but I know that being defiant and weak... it is not a policy, it's a completely inefficient system," Mr Macron said, adding that he saw none of his allies willing to confront Russia.
"There is a second choice which is to be demanding and restart a strategic dialogue because today we talk less and less, conflicts multiply and we aren't able to resolve them."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS