President Joe Biden's administration will use a NATO defense gathering this week to begin what is expected to be a years-long effort to rebuild trust with European allies shaken by Donald Trump's "America First" foreign policy.
US officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity ahead of the event, said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin would emphasize US commitment and appreciation for the trans-Atlantic alliance after Trump's open hostility.
The NATO defense ministers' meeting, to be held virtually on Feb. 17-18 is the first major European event since Biden's swearing-in on Jan. 20. Biden will deliver remarks at a virtual gathering of the Munich security forum on Feb. 19.
After years of Trump's public ridiculing of NATO allies such as Germany who failed to reach defense spending targets, Biden's Pentagon will, without abandoning those targets, focus on progress made toward bolstering NATO's collective defense, officials said.
"Trust is something that can't be built overnight, is something that takes time. It takes more than words. It takes action," said a US defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the administration's objectives for the NATO meeting.
To underscore Biden's views on NATO, the White House even took the rare step of releasing a video on Jan. 27 of the US president's first conversation with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in which he used the word "sacred" to describe the US commitment to collective defense.
Still, Biden could face an uphill battle in Europe, which saw Washington upend its commitments under Trump, including pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord.
Trump's portrayal of NATO as an organization in crisis, dragged down by laggard members, has left many European allies feeling worn down.
"There’s an exhaustion in European security circles from Trump and his unpredictability,” said a European NATO diplomat.
"We’ve just spent four years not talking to each other and the world is very different from four years ago. Biden needs to do a big repair job in Europe."
Portugal’s Defence Minister Joao Gomes Cravinho, underscoring wariness about the United States, told the European Parliament on Jan. 28 that the Trump years were an “ideological experiment” that had “devastating effects in terms of the credibility of the United States and its strength internationally."
The deadly Jan. 6 riots at the US Capitol in which pro-Trump followers tried to keep him in power, has also done severe damage to America's global image as a beacon of democracy, political analysts said.
One of Biden's biggest challenges will be convincing allies there won't be a return to another Trump era, or something akin to it, perhaps four or eight years down the line.
"That's a legitimate fear and a legitimate concern," said Rachel Rizzo, an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security focusing on European security and NATO.
She added it will be a "slow process" to prove the United States can be a reliable ally.
French President Emmanuel Macron has gone so far as to say Europe needs its own sovereign defense strategy, independent of the United States. Still, eastern European allies such as Poland – fearful of Russia - say European defense plans should only complement NATO, not replace it.
The NATO defense ministerial is expected to broach a range of issues, including efforts to end the two-decade-old war in Afghanistan.
The ministerial is also expected to include discussion of the so-called "2 percent target" which requires NATO members spend 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense by 2024.
Germany, Italy and Spain will all miss the 2024 target, according to initial projections released by NATO in October. Germany has pledged to reach the NATO spending target by 2031, and its failure angered Trump, who ordered a pullout of some 12,000 troops from Germany, declaring: "We don’t want to be the suckers any more."
Asked about the target, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said he expected Austin to emphasize that many allies were meeting the target and others were "striving to get there."
"I think you'll see a supportive message from the secretary about how relevant NATO is," said Kirby, a retired Navy admiral.
Another US official said that even with economic stress on budgets because of COVID-19, the expectation was still for allies to hit 2 percent of their GDP, with Washington likely to make the argument that the health crisis should not be allowed to turn into a security crisis.
"But you'll hear a substantially different tone and a lot more emphasis on different capabilities," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"It won't be instrumentalized as a political weapon to beat up allies."