In Munich, Harris Aims to Reassure European Allies as Trump Disparages NATO

As Air Force Two taxied for takeoff bound for Germany, Vice President Kamala Harris made her way through the plane handing out heart-shaped Valentine’s Day cookies. It was good practice for her trip to the Munich Security Conference, where her mission will be to reassure European allies that America still loves them.

Arriving in Munich even as House Republicans block military aid to Ukraine and former President Donald J. Trump vows to encourage Russia to attack “delinquent” NATO allies, Ms. Harris has the unenviable task of telling European leaders not to worry too much about those things. And she faces the challenge of making the case that Mr. Trump and his backers are wrong about the value of alliances.

While the meetings she and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken will have in Munich will be aimed at calming European leaders, the speech she will deliver to the conference on Friday will be aimed as much at the American audience back home. Without mentioning Mr. Trump by name, officials said, she plans to use the platform to forcefully rebut the former president who is aiming to reclaim his old job, arguing that international partnerships are critical to American security, not a burden to be lightly discarded.

It will also be a chance for her to prove herself on the world stage in an election year in which her running mate, President Biden, faces questions about his age. While no one in the White House would say this too openly, Ms. Harris’s challenge in the campaign is to demonstrate that she is up to the job so that voters will not worry about re-electing an 81-year-old president who would be 86 at the end of a second term.

“I am ready to serve. There’s no question about that,” Ms. Harris told The Wall Street Journal in an interview published this week. Anyone who interacts with her, she said, “walks away fully aware of my capacity to lead.”

Munich has been a favored platform for Ms. Harris to try to showcase that for years. In 2022, she spoke just days before Russia invaded Ukraine, calling it a “defining moment” for the world. Last year, she used the conference to accuse Russia of “crimes against humanity” in Ukraine, raising the diplomatic stakes of the war.

She was already planning to speak this year on the dangers of American isolationism even before Mr. Trump told a campaign rally last week that if elected again he not only would not defend NATO members attacked by Russia if they “didn’t pay” enough, but he would even “encourage” Russia “to do whatever the hell they want” to the allies. The resulting furor made her theme all the more salient.

A White House official, previewing the speech on the condition of anonymity, said she would use it to denounce the “failed ideologies of isolationism, authoritarianism and unilateralism” represented by Mr. Trump, and argue that his approach to foreign policy could lead to a world of disorder. She will focus on what the official described as four choices — globally engaged versus isolationist, international rules and norms versus chaos, democratic values versus authoritarianism and collective action versus unilateralism.

Perhaps as important, she will try to convince world leaders that she and Mr. Biden will win in November despite growing doubts among European leaders and analysts, who are already thinking about contingencies for a second Trump presidency.

Former Representative Jane Harman, a California Democrat who traveled on Air Force Two with Ms. Harris, said the vice president will be forced to explain the intransigence on Capitol Hill to approve more Ukraine aid even though by most assessments it has the support of a bipartisan majority. “The real villain is Congress, which thrives on blaming the other side for not solving problems,” said Ms. Harman. “Trump exploits this brilliantly, though I hate to give him any credit.”

But many Europeans also remain uncertain about Ms. Harris herself, maintaining that she has yet to carve out a clear identity. “Does she have any views and does she have any particular knowledge?” asked François Heisbourg, a senior adviser for Europe at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Who is she?” He said that he did not mean it “as a pejorative,” adding, “It’s just a bewilderment.”

Ms. Harris will have a chance to define herself in a series of meetings with world leaders. She is scheduled to sit down separately with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine and Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany on Saturday, sessions likely to focus on how Ukraine can hang on against Russian forces while waiting for U.S. military aid that may or may not come.

European officials are increasingly predicting that American disengagement could lead to further Russian aggression. German and Estonian officials have said that Russia could attack a NATO member within five to eight years, while Denmark’s defense chief put the window of danger at three to five years.

The dark mood in Munich will require intense American comforting, analysts said. “If hand-wringing were an Olympic sport, we’re going to be handing out a lot of medals,” said Heather A. Conley, president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a group that promotes the trans-Atlantic relationship.

Recognizing European uncertainty, the White House announced on Thursday that Mr. Biden would host President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Donald Tusk of Poland for a joint meeting at the White House on March 12. It will be their first meeting since a centrist-progressive coalition won elections in October, ousting a nationalist government seen as aligned with Mr. Trump.

“The leaders will reaffirm their unwavering support for Ukraine’s defense against Russia’s brutal war of conquest,” the White House said in a statement announcing the visit. “The meeting also coincides with the 25th anniversary of Poland’s accession to NATO and underscores the United States’ and Poland’s shared ironclad commitment to the NATO alliance, which makes us all safer.”