By Dave Clark
Washington (AFP) Feb 14, 2017
US President Donald Trump's most senior representatives will descend on Europe this week to convince allies that his putting America first does not mean they will be left behind.
Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis will find an international community still on edge after Trump's election win.
Trump is staying in Washington to host Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and to hire a new national security adviser after Michael Flynn's embarrassing early resignation.
But the president's key lieutenants are not unknown quantities abroad and may receive a warmer welcome than would their boss.
Retired Marine general Mattis, who will attend a NATO defense ministers' meeting in Brussels on Wednesday and Thursday, once served in the alliance and has fought alongside its troops.
Tillerson, the former chief executive of oil giant ExxonMobil, has criss-crossed the world for decades seeking energy deals, and has been honored as a "Friend of Russia" by the Kremlin.
He will encounter Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, China's Wang Yi and dozens of other new colleagues from the world's great powers at Thursday's G20 ministerial talks in Bonn.
Former Indiana governor Mike Pence, Trump's vice president, is less experienced on the international stage, although he did serve on the House Foreign Affairs committee in Congress.
But he will have one of the most crucial tasks of all, as he is expected to meet Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel at a Munich security conference before flying on to Brussels.
Merkel's Germany was former president Barack Obama's closest partner in Europe but Trump has dismayed EU capitals by aligning himself with Britain's decision to quit the EU.
And, with the Netherlands, France and Germany facing national elections, EU leaders are concerned that both the White House and the Kremlin will encourage populist nationalist forces.
Trump's support for Brexit has raised fears in Europe that he may, wittingly or not, collaborate with Moscow to speed the disintegration of an already fragile continental union.
- 'Obsolete' alliance? -
For almost seven decades the NATO alliance has been the bedrock of European security, a shield first against the Soviet bloc then a forum for western defense cooperation.
European powers, particularly former Soviet satellites on the alliance's eastern flank, see it as the key bulwark against Russia's renewed efforts to establish a zone of influence.
But Trump the former candidate made it clear that he has no sentimental attachment to NATO, arguing that European members don't pay their way and dubbing the alliance "obsolete."
Since his election, Trump has both tempered his criticism and appointed in Mattis a strong supporter of allied cooperation -- but his warning has also borne fruit.
On Tuesday, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg confirmed that the allies' top priority is to increase their defense spending, effectively lessening the burden on the United States.
"Regardless of language, the most important thing is that we increase defense spending and that is exactly what we are doing," Stoltenberg told reporters.
Washington has long insisted that NATO members should spend two percent of their GDP on defense, a goal that few meet.
Stoltenberg said that in two calls with Trump, the new president "strongly expressed his strong commitment to NATO ... but in both calls he underlined fair burden sharing."
"Those that spend less than the two percent have to meet the two percent target and I agree with him," he added.
In a military career which culminated with him in command of all US forces in the Middle East, Mattis once worked to modernize NATO as Supreme Allied Commander of Transformation.
And, to the relief of Washington's allies, in his confirmation hearing last month before assuming the civilian defense secretary role, he renewed his commitment to the body.
"If we did not have NATO today, we would need to create it," he told US senators.
- Russian detente? -
The nomination of Mattis went some way towards reassuring nervous allies that Trump was not about to abandon them in favor of a new alliance with Vladimir Putin's Russia.
But European capitals remain nervous about the bombastic US leader's repeated calls for a new relationship with the Kremlin, focused on battling "radical Islamic terrorism."
Russia has annexed Ukraine's Crimea region, controls chunks of Georgia, supports pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine and has launched large military exercises on NATO's border.
NATO is the first line of defense for nervous eastern allies like Poland and the Baltic states and yet Trump continues to court Putin and is reportedly considering dropping sanctions.
Above all, the uncertainty is unnerving, with allies wondering who is calling the shots in a turbulent White House overseen by Trump's nationalist provocateur strategy chief Steve Bannon.
Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference and a former German ambassador to Washington, said he hoped his forum and the G20 would lend "clarity" to US policy.
"I think in particular of this phrase of Trump's that he trusts Mrs Merkel as much as he does Mr Putin. That scares me," he told reporters.
"This idea forming in Trump's head that suggests the United States can be equidistant between the EU and Russia is horrible. In my view it's the limit of absurdity."
The chief cheerleader of a Kremlin detente in the White House was national security adviser Mike Flynn, who resigned on Monday amid controversy over calls to the Russian ambassador.
European leaders will hope that -- with Flynn gone -- Trump and Bannon will allow the other US big guns -- Pence, Tillerson and Mattis -- to repair the unity of the West.
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