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US tells NATO allies it wants to 'revitalise the alliance'

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By Euronews with AP, AFP
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a news conference at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Monday, March 22, 2021.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a news conference at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Monday, March 22, 2021.   -   Copyright  Francois Walschaerts/AP   -  

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken sought to reassure NATO allies on Tuesday for his first in-person talks with fellow foreign ministers in Brussels, after four years of tension under former President Donald Trump.

"We want to revitalise the alliance, to make sure it's as strong and effective against the threats of today as it has been in the past," Blinken told a joint news conference with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

“The meetings in Brussels reaffirm the United States’ commitment to our allies and European partners on our shared agenda," State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement ahead of the meeting.

Stoltenberg said the alliance is "now opening a new chapter" in the transatlantic relationship.

He also thanked President Biden for committing ``to "rebuild the strength of the alliance" and make it ``"future-proof in a more competitive world".

Europeans allies welcomed the change of tone from the new US administration.

“There will be no European defence without NATO and there will be no efficient and relevant NATO without Europeans," said French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

The State Department said Blinken would focus on concerns over Afghanistan, China, Iran and Russia, climate change, cybersecurity, terrorism and energy security.

The Biden administration has placed great emphasis on repairing relations with European allies, strained by Trump's demands ranging from increasing defence spending to trade rows.

Afghanistan disengagement

NATO foreign ministers will discuss Afghanistan later on Tuesday.

Blinken told reporters that a US review of options was still ongoing and he would listen and consult with allies.

"We do not wish to leave this country as we found it 20 years ago and we hope to be able to speak concretely today with the United States about how the next few weeks will unfold," said foreign minister German Heiko Maas.

Stoltenberg on Monday said "all options remain open" on Afghanistan, as Europe waits for Washington to decide on a looming withdrawal deadline.

Trump struck a deal with the Taliban to withdraw troops by May 1.

Current US President Joe Biden said last week it would be "tough" for Washington to meet that deadline.

The comment angered the Taliban, who warned that the US would be "responsible for the consequences."

NATO allies have said they are willing to stay in Afghanistan longer, if Washington decides to remain as well.

NATO has been in Afghanistan for almost 20 years but has reduced its presence from 130,000 troops to 9,600, including 2,500 Americans, responsible for training Afghan forces.

Russia and China team up

How to move forward with Russia and China relations will also be high on the meeting's agenda.

"NATO has done a good job with its forces in eastern Europe, blocking the Russian conventional threat," Jamie Shea, a former NATO Deputy Assistant Secretary-General, told Euronews.

"But the key issue is what do we do about Russia's below the radar screen activities, election interference, cyber attacks?" The US is talking about a retaliatory cyberattack against Russia," Shea went on.

China is a "big issue" for NATO, Shea said. "And I think it's going to take a bit more time. Does NATO go to Asia or does it basically deal with the Chinese challenge within Europe, particularly, for example, 5G networks and investments?"

Russian and Chinese foreign ministers Sergey Lavrov and Wang Yi displayed their unity at a meeting on Tuesday, condemning new Western sanctions over their human rights records.

"Interference in a sovereign nation's internal affairs under the excuse of `'advancing democracy' is unacceptable," they said in a joint statement issued after their meeting.

"Russia and China have lots of things in common," said Petras Austrevicius, a Lithuanian MEP with the Renew Europe Group, citing "authoritarian regimes" as well as a shared distaste for liberal democracies and Western sanctions.

It will take time, however, to see whether such a "marriage of convenience" can last, he told Euronews.

For the time being, Austrevicius urged the EU to "energise" its alliance with NATO as relations with Moscow become increasingly thorny.

"I think we shouldn't be naive and call things as they are. Relations between the West and Russia are really bad and they are getting even worse," he said.

Nord Stream, Turkey and other internal NATO disputes

Blinken said he would raise the contentious issue of Nord Stream 2 with his German counterpart.

The US fear the controversial gas pipeline could undermine Ukraine and the EU's security.

“President Biden has been very clear, he believes the pipeline is a bad idea, bad for Europe, bad for the United States, ultimately it is in contradiction to the EU’s own security goals,” Blinken said.

Blinken urged Turkey to fully embrace the alliance after Ankara came under fire for purchasing military equipment from Russia.

Military budgets remain a sensitive issue in the transatlantic alliance.

Trump repeatedly pressured leading Europan countries to boost defence spending to 2% of GDP.

Despite the marked change in tone, the Biden administration is expected to remain firm on pressing European allies to share NATO's financial and military burden.

'No concrete decisions' expected yet

Shea told Euronews that "no concrete decisions" were expected at Tuesday's meeting, considering the Biden administration was still "carrying out a lot of foreign policy reviews".

Talks intend to lay the ground for Joe Biden's first NATO summit, which may take place in June if the coronavirus situation permits.

"I think it's the NATO summit later this year, particularly in launching a new NATO strategic concept, which will decide about the Alliance's future," Shea said.

"But it's important to get the discussion on these very tricky topics underway and give NATO adequate time to come up with really sound policies."