BERLIN – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his German counterpart stressed the close ties between their two countries Thursday, batting away talk of trans-Atlantic friction and insisting that the NATO alliance that both are part of remains relevant today.
Their strong defense of the alliance — 30 years after the end of the Cold War — came after French President Emmanuel Macron claimed in an interview that a lack of U.S. leadership is causing the "brain death" of NATO.
Speaking after visiting the German village of Moedlareuth, which was divided into two during the Cold War, Pompeo told reporters it was the "remarkable work" of democratic nations that "created freedom and brought millions of people out of very, very difficult situations."
"I think NATO remains an important, critical, perhaps historically one of the most critical, strategic partnerships in all of recorded history," Pompeo told reporters in Leipzig.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas also weighed in, saying he did "not believe NATO is brain dead," adding "I firmly believe in international cooperation."
U.S. President Donald Trump has worried many NATO members with comments that the trans-Atlantic alliance is "obsolete," and has hounded members to spend more on defense, saying Washington pays a disproportionate share.
Pompeo said Trump's stance urging countries to live up to NATO commitments to spend 2% of gross domestic product on defense showed the alliance is "so central, so important" to the U.S.
"That is why it is an absolute imperative that every country participate and join in and contribute appropriately to achieving that shared security mission," he said.
Pompeo started his day visiting American troops in southern Germany in an area where he served as an Army officer during the Cold War.
Pompeo, who was a tank platoon leader on the border with Czechoslovakia and East Germany in the 1980s, met with troops at the Grafenwoehr training area and nearby Vilseck and attended a live-fire exercise before heading north to Moedlareuth.
During the Cold War, Moedlareuth was split down the middle by the border between East and West Germany, with the southern part in Bavaria and the northern part in Thuringia, a partition that gave rise to its nickname, "Little Berlin."
Hundreds of thousands of Americans were stationed in West Germany during the Cold War, and the country was one of the United States' closest allies. That relationship continued after the Nov. 9, 1989, fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism, but ties have become strained recently under the presidency of Donald Trump over a series of issues.
In Leipzig, Maas emphasized the gratitude Germany feels toward the United States, which for decades defended the West German border with military might and political power.
Maas, who was widely criticized in recent days for failing to mention the U.S. contribution to ending the Cold War in an op-ed that was published in 26 European newspapers over the weekend, appeared to go out of his way to name American leaders who helped bring the divided nation back together again in 1989.
"Without American leadership there would have been no reunification," Maas said during a news conference at Leipzig's old town hall.
"We owe you our freedom and unity to a decisive degree," he added, naming Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush as key figures in the Cold War battle to unify Germany, along with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and European allies.
Later, the two diplomats visited the nearby city of Halle, where a gunman last month killed two people in a botched attack on a synagogue. After laying wreaths for the victims, Pompeo urged political leaders in Germany and elsewhere to confront anti-Semitism.
"Every leader in every government has a responsibility to do all that we can to stamp out these threats," he said.
"Whether that's a nation that wants to destroy the Jewish state or an individual that doesn't have respect for the Jewish faith," he added.
Pompeo was traveling on to Berlin, where he was scheduled to deliver a speech highlighting the U.S. role in helping eastern and central Europe "throw off the yoke of communism" and meet Friday with Chancellor Angela Merkel and Germany's defense minister.
He will also unveil a statue of Reagan on an upper-level terrace of the U.S. Embassy, overlooking the site in front of the landmark Brandenburg Gate where the Berlin Wall once stood. That is where Reagan gave his famous 1987 speech beseeching Gorbachev to "open this gate" and "tear down this wall."
David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.