* Mattis to brief NATO defence ministers, show support
* Europe unsettled by Trump's comments, willing to adapt
By Robin Emmott and Phil Stewart
BRUSSELS, Feb 15 European allies will tell the
United States' new defence secretary on Wednesday that NATO is
not the weak alliance U.S. President Donald Trump has accused it
of being, at one of the most anticipated NATO meetings in years.
At their first face-to-face encounter with Jim Mattis,
European defence ministers will also seek reassurances from
their U.S. counterpart that Trump is committed to the North
Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which has guaranteed Europe's
security for almost 70 years.
"Mattis's performance is going to be really important," said
Adam Thomson, a former British ambassador to NATO and director
of the European Leadership Network think tank in London. "It is
all about how credibly he appears to speak for the entire U.S.
Trump's contradictory remarks on NATO, calling it
"obsolete" during the U.S. election campaign but also supporting
it, as well as his praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin,
have deeply unsettled allies who fear for transatlantic ties.
In his debut trip to Europe as Pentagon chief, Mattis is set
to echo longstanding U.S. calls that European allies invest more
on defence, something U.S. defence secretaries under Republican
and Democratic administrations have done for years.
But experts say that message will have to be calibrated,
because while Trump has eased off his criticism of NATO since
taking office, he has maintained criticism of some allies for
failing to make "full and proper financial contributions."
"Many of them have not been even close," Trump said of
European defence spending. "And they have to do that," Trump
told U.S. troops in Florida earlier this month.
NATO Europe argues it is increasing defence spending, upping
outlays by $10 billion last year.
Moscow's 2014 annexation of Crimea, Ukraine's Black Sea
peninsula, and its direct support for rebels in eastern Ukraine
have prompted NATO to begin sending alliance troops to Russia's
borders to deter the Kremlin from any other moves.
Mattis, a former NATO general who served in the U.S.
military for four decades, is likely to feel at home at the
alliance headquarters. But he also arrives amid renewed
uncertainty in Washington after White House national security
adviser Michael Flynn's resigned this week.
Mattis said that resignation over Flynn's pre-inauguration
discussions with Russia over economic sanctions had "no impact".
One senior European NATO diplomat said allies are under no
illusion that Trump might not still undo careful diplomatic work
with a single message on Twitter. But they would still look for
his support as they try to manage tensions with Russia.
"We need to bring the family together," the diplomat said.
"Things have been made to feel fragile," the diplomat added,
referring to Trump's campaign remarks about NATO.
NATO defence ministers from Europe, Canada and Turkey will
also want to hear from Mattis, who will be first to address the
27 other defence ministers on Wednesday, on how the alliance can
meet Trump's demands to do more to counter Islamic militants.
NATO says it is already active, training troops from
Afghanistan to Iraq, and cannot do the work of police or social
workers seeking out returning foreign fighters from Syria.
"We need to be clear that the response to international
terrorism cannot be led by NATO, but it can a part of that," a
second senior European NATO diplomat said.
Mattis is also expected to host a meeting of ministers from
the U.S.-led coalition battling Islamic State, which all NATO
members are part of. Allies want a way forward in Syria and Iraq
as U.S. military leaders scramble to complete a plan for Trump
outlining ways to accelerate the defeat of the militant group.
Trump has openly spoken about his hopes of working with
Russia to combat Islamic State, but U.S. allies may be hesitant
to be seen siding with Russia and its ally, Syrian President
Bashar al-Assad, in Syria's messy, multi-pronged conflict.
(Reporting by Robin Emmott, editing by Larry King)