Pence blasts allies on Iran, Venezuela as Freeland urges 'working together'

As U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence launched a renewed rebuke of European powers over their position on Iran and Venezuela on Saturday, leaders from Canada and Germany defended their own multilateral vision for how the West should address world crises.

Munich Security Conference sees clash of visions for how West should deal with crises

U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence admonished European leaders on Saturday during the Munich Security Conference for their recent policies toward Iran and Venezuela. (Michael Dalder/Reuters)

As U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence launched a renewed rebuke of European powers over their position on Iran and Venezuela on Saturday, leaders from Canada and Germany defended their own multilateral vision for how the West should address world crises.

"America is stronger than ever before and America is leading on the world stage once again," Pence told international officials gathered for the Munich Security Conference, listing what he described as U.S. foreign policy successes from Afghanistan to North Korea, and urging support from American allies.

"America First does not mean America alone," he said, hailing the results of Donald Trump's presidency as "remarkable" and "extraordinary," and calling on the EU to follow Washington in quitting the Iran nuclear deal and recognizing the head of Venezuela's congress, Juan Guaido, as the country's president.

​Pence's speech was the latest attempt by a Trump administration official to put the president's "America First" agenda into a coherent policy plan.

But traditional American allies are troubled by Trump's rhetoric, which they say is erratic and disruptive, citing his decision to pull out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal as undermining an arms control agreement that prevented Tehran from developing a nuclear bomb.

Leaders including Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland stressed on Saturday the importance of taking a multilateral approach to dealing with international issues, pointing to recent initiatives such as the Lima Group of Latin American countries, which has attempted to respond to the continuing political and economic crisis in Venezuela.

"We need to be finding new ways to work together," said Freeland.

Last week, Pence accused Britain, Germany and France of undermining U.S. sanctions on Iran, and on Saturday he repeated his demand for European powers to withdraw from the arms control deal.

"The time has come for our European partners to withdraw from the disastrous Iran nuclear deal," he said, and later pressed Merkel over the issue in bilateral talks.

Merkel defends Russia relations

Pence also reiterated to her Washington's opposition to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline under construction between Russia and Germany under the Baltic Sea.

"We cannot strengthen the West by becoming dependent on the East," Pence said.

Merkel, who made a robust defence of Germany's foreign trade relations and ties with Russia during her own speech, said later it was unreasonable to assume that Russia would be an unreliable energy supplier.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, met Pence on Saturday for a bilateral sit-down on the sidelines of the Munich gathering. (Matthias Schrader/Associated Press)

Speaking before Pence, Merkel questioned whether the U.S. decision to leave the Iran nuclear deal and its withdrawal from Syria was the best way to tackle Tehran in the region.

During a question-and-answer session, she added that it would be wrong to exclude Russia politically, but Pence said Washington was "holding Russia accountable" for its 2014 seizure of Ukraine and what he says are efforts to destabilize Western democracies through cyberattacks, disinformation and covert operations.

"Geostrategically, Europe can't have an interest in cutting off all relations with Russia," Merkel said.

Looming Venezuela crisis

Pence, who used his trip to Europe to push Trump's policy of favouring one-on-one deals with individual nations instead of alliances and blocs, took aim at the EU over Venezuela's political crisis.

"Today we call on the European Union to step forward for freedom and recognize Juan Guaido as the only legitimate president of Venezuela," he said, calling President Nicolas Maduro a dictator who must step down.

Maduro has been keeping humanitarian aid from entering Venezuela, and Freeland said in Munich that "we are absolutely frustrated" with the blockade, adding that she spoke with Guaido ahead of the Munich gathering to ask him what messages he wanted her to bring to other leaders at the conference.

Freeland, U.S. leaders talk tariffs

Freeland also attended a number of bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the gathering, including with U.S House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, and the EU's chief Brexit negotiator.

Freeland said she spoke with Pelosi on the continuing U.S. tariffs imposed on Canadian steel and aluminum since June. She said she told Grassley, the chair of the U.S. Senate finance committee, that now a new trade pact has been reached with Washington, the tariffs should be lifted.

Pence's roving address also stepped up U.S. pressure on Chinese telecom equipment companies such as Huawei Technologies Co., urging allies to avoid the firms and saying Chinese law requires them to give Beijing access to networks and data.

China's top diplomat Yang Jiechi rejected Pence's comments. 

"Chinese law doesn't require companies to install back doors to collect intelligence," Yang told the conference.

Yang, one of the architects of Chinese foreign policy, echoed Merkel's vision, saying the world should "pull together" to address global challenges, while former U.S. vice-president Joe Biden got a standing ovation for a speech in which he said that after Trump, close traditional U.S.-EU relations would resume. 

"America will be back," he said.

With files from CBC's Elise von Scheel