Saturday, February 18, 2017

US Defense Secretary Calms European Nerves Over NATO
James Mattis tells Munich conference that America will defend members that come under attack from Russia

Ewen MacAskill in Munich
Friday 17 February 2017 12.33 EST

The US defence secretary, James Mattis, has reassured European allies nervous about Donald Trump’s presidency that the US will defend any member of Nato that comes under attack from Russia.

On the campaign trail last year, Trump said he would not feel bound by Nato’s article five, under which an attack on any one of the 28 members is treated as an attack on all. Trump singled out the Baltic states, complaining that some of them were not contributing a fair share to Nato defence spending.

But Mattis, in contrast to Trump, told the Munich security conference on Friday: “Article five is a bedrock commitment.” US security, he added, was “permanently tied” to that of Europe.

The conference, which is being attended by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and other world leaders as well as 47 foreign ministers and 30 defence ministers, is the first chance most of them have had to meet members of the Trump administration and try to gain clarity about Trump’s foreign policy goals.

But the conference is also a chance for the Trump team – including Mattis, the vice-president, Mike Pence, and the homeland security secretary, John Kelly – to confront European anxieties about their boss.

Those anxieties, which were exacerbated by Trump’s extraordinary 77-minute press conference on Thursday, were on full display as the German defence minister, Ursula von der Leyen, delivered a robust response to Trump that contrasted with the softer approach of the British government.

Speaking before Mattis, Von der Leyen said negative remarks from Washington about the European Union, including support for Brexit, were not helpful.

“Our American friends know well that their tone on Europe and Nato has a direct influence on the cohesion of our continent,” she said, warning that such remarks could prove damaging to the future cohesion of the EU. “A stable European Union is just as much in the American interest as a united Nato.”

She said the world needed a responsible US government and that there was a need to protect values, such as total opposition to torture. Trump has said torture can be useful.

Von der Leyen also said Nato should establish a better relationship with Russia, and that this should be done collectively, not by Trump going over people’s heads direct to Moscow.

She said Germany accepted it could not continue to rely on the US whenever the going got tough and that it had to increase defence spending: “We must also carry our share of the burden.”

John McCain, the chairman of the US senate armed services committee, said the generation that founded the Munich conference 53 years ago would be alarmed by recent developments such as “the hardening resentment we see toward immigrants, and refugees, and minority groups, especially Muslims”.

He added: “What would alarm them most, I think, is a sense that many of our peoples, including in my own country, are giving up on the west.”

In Brussels this week, Mattis called on Nato members, including Germany, who have not met the target of spending 2% of GDP on defence to increase expenditure.

But Von der Leyen said Germany had committed two years ago to reach the 2% target over a 10-year period.

Mattis also spoke of common US and European values inherited from the Enlightenment and warned that this democratic heritage was facing an unprecedented level of attacks.

“We all see our community of nations under threat on multiple fronts as the arc of instability builds on Nato’s periphery and beyond,” he said, adding: “American security is permanently tied to the security of Europe.”

In spite of warning midweek that the US might begin to scale back its Nato commitments if other countries did not increase defence spending, Mattis confirmed that US troop deployments to the Baltics, Poland and elsewhere in eastern Europe started under Barack Obama would continue as planned.

The UK defence secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, speaking to journalists on the sidelines of the conference, warned Russia against becoming involved in Libya as it had done in Syria.

Asked if he was concerned that Russia might open a new front in Libya by supporting an alternative leader in the divided country, Fallon said: “We certainly don’t need Russia, the Bear, sticking its paws in.”

The Libyan prime minister, Fayez al-Serraj, on Thursday put forward a detailed plan to Nato asking for military help. He has the support of the US, the UK, other European leaders and the United Nations.

Russia has been courting the military commander in eastern Libya, Khalifa Haftar, who is opposed to Serraj. Haftar was given a tour of a Russian aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean last month and spoke by video conferencing on the carrier with the Russian defence minister, Sergei Shoigu.

Fallon described the visit to the carrier as symbolic. “It is not interference … yet,” he said. “Putin is testing the west. He is testing the alliance. At any point he sees weakness, he pushes home.”

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