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In NATO debut, Biden’s Pentagon aims to rebuild trust damaged by Trump

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WASHINGTON / BRUSSELS (Reuters) – President Joe Bidens’ administration will use a NATO defense rally this week to launch what is expected to be a multi-year effort to restore trust with European allies shaken by foreign policy in Donald Trump America First.

U.S. officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity ahead of the event, said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin would emphasize the United States’ commitment and appreciation for the transatlantic alliance after Trump opened hostility.

The NATO defense ministers meeting, which will be held virtually February 17-18 here, is the first major European event since Biden was sworn in on January 20. Biden will deliver remarks at a virtual Munich Security Forum meeting here on February 19.

After years of public ridiculing of Trump about NATO allies such as Germany who failed to meet defense spending targets, Bidens Pentagon will focus, without abandoning those targets, on progress made to strengthen collective defense of NATO, officials said.

Confidence is something that cannot be built overnight, it is something that takes time. It takes more than words. He is taking action, said a US defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the administration’s goals for the NATO meeting.

To underscore Biden’s take on NATO, the White House even took the rare step of posting a youtu.be/o9E1S3UPRFY video on January 27 of the US President’s first conversation with NATO Secretary General Jens. Stoltenberg in which he used the word “sacred”. to describe the United States’ commitment to collective defense.

Still, Biden could face an uphill battle in Europe, which has seen Washington abandon its commitments under Trump, including withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord.

The portrayal of NATO as an organization in crisis, dragged down by lagging members, has left many European allies exhausted.

There is exhaustion in Trump’s European security circles and his unpredictability, a European NATO diplomat said.

We have just spent four years not talking to each other and the world is very different from four years ago. Biden has to do a major repair job in Europe.

Portuguese Defense Minister Joao Gomes Cravinho, underscoring mistrust of the United States, told the European Parliament on January 28 that the Trump years were an ideological experiment that had devastating effects on the credibility of states United and their international strength.

The deadly January 6 riots on the U.S. Capitol, in which pro-Trump supporters tried to keep him in power, also severely damaged the global image of the Americas as a beacon of democracy, said political analysts.

A RELIABLE ALLY?

One of Bidens’ biggest challenges will be convincing the allies that there will be no return to another Trump era, or something like him, maybe four or eight years later.

It’s a legitimate fear and a legitimate concern, said Rachel Rizzo, assistant member of the Center for a New American Security, which focuses on European security and NATO.

She added that it would be a slow process to prove that the United States can be a reliable ally.

French President Emmanuel Macron has gone so far as to say that Europe needs its own sovereign defense strategy, independent of the United States here. Yet Eastern European allies like Poland fear Russia – argue that European defense plans should only complement NATO, not replace it.

NATO’s defense ministerial conference is expected to address a range of issues, including efforts to end the two-decade war in Afghanistan.

The ministerial conference is also expected to include a discussion of the so-called 2% target, which requires NATO members to spend 2% of gross domestic product on defense by 2024.

Germany, Italy and Spain will all miss the 2024 target, according to first projections released by NATO in October. Germany has pledged to meet the NATO spending target by 2031, and its failure angered Trump, who ordered the withdrawal of around 12,000 troops from Germany, saying: We don’t want to be suckers anymore.

When asked about the target, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said he expected Austin to point out that many allies were achieving the target and others were striving to achieve it.

I think you’ll see a message of support from the secretary on the relevance of NATO, said Kirby, a retired naval admiral.

Another US official said even with economic stress on budgets due to COVID-19, allies were still expected to reach 2% of their GDP, with Washington likely to argue that the health crisis is not should not be allowed to turn into a security crisis.

But you’ll hear a noticeably different tone and a lot more emphasis on different abilities, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

It will not be used as a political weapon to beat the allies.

Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali in Washington and Robin Emmott in Brussels; Edited by Mary Milliken and Grant McCool

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