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Mattis Tells Europeans Trump Fully Supports NATO, Calls For Burden-Sharing

Mattis Sees 'Arc Of Instability' On Europe's Periphery
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WATCH: Jim Mattis Sees 'Arc Of Instability' On Europe's Periphery

MUNICH, Germany -- U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reassured Europe that President Donald Trump has "thrown his full support behind NATO," while also pressing the new administration's call for alliance members to shoulder their share of the financial burden for defense.

Mattis spoke on February 17 at the annual Munich Security Conference, where European leaders are watching closely for signals about Washington's commitment to upholding transatlantic ties under Trump.

He said that after the "watershed year" of 2014 -- when Russia seized Crimea and stoked a conflict in eastern Ukraine, and Islamic State (IS) militants overran swaths of Syria and Iraq -- NATO nations "can no longer deny reality."

"As guardians for our nations and as sentinels for new threats, we all see our community of nations under threat on multiple fronts as the arc of instability builds on NATO's periphery and beyond," Mattis said. He also said the "transatlantic bond remains our strongest bulwark against instability and violence."

Mattis indicated that the United States is not questioning "the bedrock commitment" of NATO to collectively defend any member that is attacked, and said all allies must work as a team go to preserve the freedoms" of the transatlantic community "intact for our next generations."

"President Trump came into office and has thrown now his full support to NATO," he said. "He too espouses NATO's need to adapt to today's strategic situation for it to remain credible, capable, and relevant," Mattis said.

'Fair Demand'

But Mattis, who told NATO allies in Brussels on February 15 that the United States might "moderate" its commitment if other members do not honor their defense spending pledges, again emphasized the need for "proportionate" outlays by every member.

"It is a fair demand that all who benefit from the best alliance in the world carry their proportionate share of the necessary costs to defend our freedoms," he said. The United States provides 70 percent of the alliance's funds.

Coming less than a month after Trump's inauguration, the 53rd edition of the Munich Security Conference is a chance for governments in Europe, Russia, and around the world to look for answers to questions about the foreign policy Washington will pursue in the coming years.

From an array of prominent figures including the presidents of Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine, as well as Republican U.S Senator John McCain and Irish rock star Bono from the band U2, there were impassioned calls for unity and the defense of what speaker after speaker said were -- and must remain --the common values of Western countries.

"We cannot give up on each other or on ourselves," McCain said. "That is what our adversaries want."

Munich conference Chairman Wolfgang Ischinger
Munich conference Chairman Wolfgang Ischinger

Conference chairman Wolfgang Ischinger opened the three-day gathering with words that seemed to channel concerns in Europe about Trump, who has caused jitters by praising Britain's plan to leave the European Union, calling NATO "obsolete," and voicing admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Ischinger said the gathering was happening at a time when the global security situation is "more volatile than at any point I can remember" -- clouded by "massive uncertainty" over issues including "the future of the transatlantic relationship."

Ischinger asked whether the United States still wants to be a European power, and said some of Trump's statements "seem to point in a different direction." He also questioned whether or not recent remarks by U.S. officials that seemed to represent a toughening stance on Russia reflect "a lasting shift."

While Trump suggested during the presidential campaign that he would consider lifting sanctions imposed on Russia over its interference in Ukraine, administration officials have said repeatedly in the past few days that Moscow must return control over Crimea to Kyiv and deescalate violence in eastern Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko urged the West to reject calls for the "appeasement of Russia," warning that "it would be a mistake to think that Russia's appetite" is limited to Ukraine.

Conflicts And Crises

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to speak at the gathering on February 18, and a senior White House foreign policy adviser said he will tell the conference that Europe is an "indispensable partner" for the United States.

"We are the most secure and most prosperous when both the U.S. and Europe are strong and united," the adviser told reporters.

Pence is expected to meet with Poroshenko, as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and leaders from the Baltic nations.

Merkel and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are among those due to address the conference on February 18.

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen delivers an opening statement on the first day of the Munich conference.
German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen delivers an opening statement on the first day of the Munich conference.

Speaking just before Mattis, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen also told the Munich gathering that the world is watching "conflicts and crises spread at a staggering rate."

Apparently referring at least in part to Russia, she said some countries are "projecting military power" and that "zones of influence are being modified" in ways that violate international law."

"Our open societies are under attack, our freedom," she said, adding that the arsenals of those conducting them now include "bots, trolls, and fake news" -- methods Western governments say Moscow is using to interfere in elections from the United States to Europe, where countries including Germany hold key votes this year.

Von der Leyen said that "a stable European Union is as much in America's interest as a strong, unified NATO," and that "NATO cannot be taken for granted" by European members or the United States.

She stressed that while it is important for members to share the financial burden, there are "shared values" that also are crucial for alliance members -- such as opposing torture and avoiding civilian casualties.

WATCH: John McCain Calls For Solidarity In Western Values

McCain Calls For Solidarity In Western Values
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McCain said that the departure of Michael Flynn, who was forced out as White House national security adviser amid controversy over phone conversations with Russia's ambassador to the United States, showed that the Trump administration "in many in disarray and they've got a lot of work to do."

But McCain suggested he is confident that Europe can rely on the United States as a strong partner.

"Make no mistake my friends, these are dangerous times but you should not count America out."

With reporting by Reuters, dpa, and AFP

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.