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Nato vows 'unity' at Trump defence chief's debut
[BRUSSELS] Nato allies will show "transatlantic unity" in their first talks with new Pentagon boss James Mattis on Wednesday, the alliance's chief said against a backdrop of concerns about US President Donald Trump's commitment.
Defence Secretary Mattis has voiced support for Nato in contrast with the sceptical President Trump, and has been tougher on Russia than his boss, whose views worry the alliance's eastern European member states in particular.
Mr Mattis's visit has been overshadowed by the resignation of Mr Trump's national security adviser Michael Flynn over allegations he had discussed US sanctions with Russia's ambassador before taking office.
"I am absolutely certain that the message from this meeting will be a message of transatlantic unity," Nato Secretary Jens Stoltenberg told journalists as he arrived for the two-day meeting in Brussels.
Mr Stoltenberg said they will also stress "the importance that we stand together and protect each other and a very strong commitment of the United States to Nato."
His comments came after he was asked whether Flynn's departure over his behind-the-scene contacts with Russia was a sign of chaos in the Trump administration.
Mattis said on the flight to Brussels that Mr Flynn's departure would have "no impact" on the US message to Nato.
The retired Marine general praised the alliance for its enduring help for the United States in Afghanistan.
"This has been the most successful alliance in military history," he said.
Also hanging over the meeting was a New York Times report that Moscow had deployed a new cruise missile, raising fears it would violate the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF).
Like the US State Department, the Nato chief said he would not comment on intelligence matters but warned that "any non-compliance of Russia with the INF treaty would be serious concern for the alliance".
Despite the message of unity, Mr Mattis is still set to push the rest of the 28-nation group to meet their increased military spending pledges, despite many in Europe facing hard economic times.
In a sign that the Trump administration's pressure on the issue is bearing fruit, Mr Stoltenberg said on the eve of the meeting that boosting spending was a top priority.
"The most important thing is that we increase defence spending and that is exactly what we are doing," Mr Stoltenberg told reporters at alliance headquarters.
Mr Stoltenberg said the alliance in 2015 had stopped the military budget cuts and last year actually increased spending by 3.8 per cent, or US$10 billion, but still needs to do more.
Washington has long insisted that Nato members should spend two per cent of their GDP on defence, a goal that few meet despite agreeing on it at a summit in Wales in 2014.
Nato leaders are expected to meet Mr Trump for the first time at a summit in Brussels on May 25.
Mr Stoltenberg said he was confident that Mr Trump remained as committed to Nato as his predecessors.
The meeting will also discuss Russia as well as the threat from the Islamic State group.
Nato allies were also looking forward to hearing more about the new administration's position, after a series of contradictory statements from Mr Trump.
As president-elect, in an interview published on January 15 that sent shockwaves through Nato, Mr Trump said the alliance was "obsolete" and had "not bothered about terrorism".
Mr Trump sharply criticised Nato members for defence underspending, but added: "Nato remains very important to me".
In a military career which culminated with him in command of all US forces in the Middle East, Mr Mattis once worked to modernise Nato as Supreme Allied Commander of Transformation.