By Robin Emmott
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday pledged to rebuild and revitalise the transatlantic military alliance after a bruising four years when Washington portrayed NATO as outdated, divided and in crisis.
The first top U.S. official to visit NATO since President Joe Biden took office in January, Blinken said the alliance was at a pivotal moment but could emerge stronger after internal disputes over Turkey and Russian gas.
"I've come here to express the United States' steadfast commitment (to NATO)," Blinken told reporters as he met NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. "The United States wants to rebuild our partnerships, first and foremost with our NATO allies, we want to revitalise the alliance."
Biden will join a video conference of European Union leaders on Thursday, a top EU official said, as part of that renewal.
After four years of friction with Washington under the presidency of Donald Trump, who said the alliance was obsolete and harangued allies over defence spending targets, NATO's European members have welcomed the change in tone, saying they are once again being consulted on strategy.
"The last thing we can afford to do is take this alliance for granted," said Blinken, a longtime Biden confidant who is seeking to repair damage done by Trump's "America First" policy.
"The process of confronting our own shortcomings can be very painful. It can be ugly. But ultimately, at least today, we've emerged the better and the stronger for it," he said.
Blinken said China's military rise and Russia's attempts to destabilise the West were threats that required NATO to come together, urging Turkey to embrace the alliance.
Having already bought Russian weapons, Turkey briefly blocked NATO defence plans in 2019 and launched an offensive on U.S.-backed rebels in Syria, prompting French President Emmanuel Macron to assert that NATO was "experiencing brain death".
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian welcomed Blinken's overtures, saying that NATO, founded in 1949 to contain a military threat from the Soviet Union, had "rediscovered" its better self.
"There will be no European defence without NATO and there will be no efficient and relevant NATO without Europeans," he said at NATO headquarters, where the foreign ministers were meeting for the first time in person in a year, due to COVID-19.
AFGHANISTAN, NORD STREAM 2
Stoltenberg has set out areas where NATO could modernise - from climate measures to more sustainable funding of military operations and refocusing the alliance to help the West face China's technological prowess and growing armed forces.
Asked about any withdrawal from Afghanistan, where the United States has been at war since 2001, Blinken said a U.S. review of options was underway and he would consult with allies. No decisions were taken on Tuesday, Stoltenberg said.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned against a premature pull-out that would see gains in security, education and human rights quickly lost. "We want a conditions-based withdrawal of all forces from Afghanistan," Maas said.
Germany's push to complete construction of a controversial gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea from Russia remained a divisive issue. Blinken said Nord Stream 2 ran counter to the European Union's interests and could undermine Ukraine. He said he would raise the issue with Maas.
"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.
"It has the potential to undermine the interests of Ukraine, Poland and a number of close partners and allies," Blinken said, saying that a U.S. law required Washington to impose sanctions on companies participating in the project.
(Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Alex Richardson, Andrew Cawthorne and Giles Elgood)