BRUSSELS • US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in his first Nato meeting yesterday, told allies that the United States will uphold previous agreements and ensure the alliance has the capability to defend itself, including from Russian aggression.
He also pressed allies to meet a defence spending goal of 2 per cent of gross domestic product, urging each country to either meet or have a plan in place to fulfil the alliance funding commitment by a May summit of Nato leaders.
Mr Tillerson also sought to assuage fears that the US administration would seek closer ties with Russia at Nato's expense, particularly after President Donald Trump said during the presidential campaign last year that the alliance was obsolete. He said: "Let me be very clear at the outset of my remarks, the US commitment to Nato is strong and this alliance remains the bedrock for transatlantic security.
"The Nato alliance is also fundamental to countering both non-violent, but at times violent, Russian agitation and Russian aggression."
Mr Tillerson had stoked anxiety among the 28-nation organisation when he initially indicated he would not be able to attend the foreign ministers' meeting because it conflicted with a summit in Florida with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Yesterday's event in Brussels was rescheduled to accommodate him, and even so, Mr Tillerson planned to attend for only a few hours.
Nerves were rattled further when Mr Tillerson said he would go to Russia, the target of European and US sanctions imposed after the Kremlin annexed Ukraine's Crimea region in 2014, for meetings with top officials just days after the Xi meeting. Numerous congressional committees, as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the US intelligence community, are investigating the Trump campaign's links to Russia, as well as Russian meddling in the US election.
Meanwhile, US Defence Secretary James Mattis said yesterday in London that Russia "is choosing to be a strategic competitor". Its violations of international law are a matter of record, including its Crimea annexation and "mucking around" in other countries' elections, he said.
Nato officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Mr Tillerson's remarks were well received by others at the meeting and that the atmosphere was positive.
But Germany yesterday baulked at the US demand for more European Nato spending, saying the alliance's agreed target spending of 2 per cent of members' yearly economic output was neither "reachable nor desirable".
Currently, the US accounts for about 70 per cent of the alliance's overall defence expenditure, and just five Nato members meet the 2 per cent target. Alliance members pledged in 2014, and then again last year, to step up efforts to meet the spending goal by 2024.
Meanwhile, Poland said yesterday that it expects to sign a deal with US defence firm Raytheon to buy eight Patriot missile defence systems by the year end.
REUTERS, BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE