Report

Tillerson Plan to Skip NATO Meeting Baffles Former Officials

Lawmakers, former officials denounce the move as 'disgraceful.'

tillerson crop

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is reportedly considering skipping a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels next month, in a nearly unprecedented move that baffled many in the foreign-policy community.

Tillerson would miss meetings in Brussels from April 5 to 6 to stay in Washington and travel with President Donald Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping to Trump’s private club in Palm Beach, Fla. Xi is visiting the United States for the first time since Trump took office, though Tillerson already met Xi during his visit to China last week. 

A State Department spokesperson backtracked after news broke Monday night, saying they may consider working on alternative dates, but nothing was confirmed yet. “We are certainly appreciative of the effort to accommodate Secretary Tillerson,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters Tuesday. “We have offered alternative dates that the secretary could attend.” He added “the United States remains 100 percent committed to NATO.”

A former U.S. official and NATO diplomat told Reuters, which first reported the story, that NATO quietly offered to move the dates to fit what would be Tillerson’s first Brussels visit on his schedule. The official said the State Department declined the initial offer.

 

It is highly unusual for a U.S. secretary to skip NATO ministerial meetings, which are held separately for foreign and defense ministers several times a year. The last secretary of state to miss a foreign ministerial was Colin Powell, who canceled his ministerial attendance last-minute during the start of the Iraq war in 2003.

The decision could worry allies already rattled by Trump’s NATO skepticism and potential Russia ties. It also starves Tillerson of an opportunity to repair growing rifts in U.S.-European relations after several clumsy diplomatic blunders from the White House.

Another meeting reportedly on Tillerson’s itinerary could add fuel to the fire: The secretary of state is slated to visit Moscow within weeks of the NATO foreign ministerial he could skip.

Lawmakers and former officials expressed shock and dismay at the news. “This sends a terrible message to Europe,” a former senior Pentagon official told Foreign Policy. “And yes it signals that [Tillerson] is ready to talk to Russia before he talks to NATO.”

The news of Tillerson’s itinerary emerged a day after FBI Director James Comey confirmed for the first time the bureau was investigating ties between the Kremlin and Trump’s inner circle in its Russian election interference probe.

“In my many years of working NATO ministerials, any time there was a schedule problem we always worked around it,” Jim Townsend, the former top Pentagon official on NATO under President Barack Obama, told Foreign Policy. “Not all ministers show up all the time, it’s not like it’s unheard of for most countries. But for the United States it is a huge deal because we lead the alliance,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D- N.Y.), ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called the move an “absolute disgrace.”

“I cannot fathom why the administration would pursue this course except to signal a change in American foreign policy that draws our country away from western democracy’s most important institutions and aligns the United States more closely with the autocratic regime in the Kremlin,” Engel said Tuesday.

NATO has convened defense and foreign ministerial meetings since the early days of the Cold War. The meetings are one of the only semi-regular venues for European ministers to get face-time with their American counterparts. They’re also a critical mechanism for getting things done in the NATO bureaucracy, Townsend said. “It drove us to put down on paper alliance positions and hash out agreements and actions,” he said.

And in April, NATO leaders have a lot to hash out: major new troop deployments to the Baltic States to deter Russia, disintegrating European relations with fellow NATO ally Turkey, the ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, the NATO mission in Afghanistan, and key priorities for NATO’s upcoming head of state summit in May.

Tillerson is also grappling with several White House-induced scandals that undermine Washington’s footing with NATO allies. After Trump’s rocky meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on March 17, he took to Twitter to claim Berlin “owed” NATO and Washington money for its NATO dues. Germany rebuked Trump’s claims Sunday, clarifying that’s not how NATO defense spending works. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer also infuriated British intelligence services after he accused them of spying on Trump at the behest of former President Barack Obama. In an unusual public statement, Britain’s signals intelligence service slapped down the claims as “utterly ridiculous.” During congressional testimony Monday, National Security Agency chief Mike Rogers said the White House’s unsubstantiated claims “clearly frustrates allies of ours.”

Tillerson’s move was likely a combination of the Trump administration spurning NATO and scheduling errors in an understaffed State Department, Townsend said. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who knows a thing or two about the Herculean task of managing the top U.S. diplomat’s schedule, agreed. “I think it’s a most unfortunate signal,” Albright said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on a separate subject on Tuesday. “I would blame it on schedulers. I do think that is part of the problem. He will have met with a lot of ministers in other venues, but given the discussion that’s going on about NATO, I think it’s an unfortunate scheduling problem.”

A State Department official told FP Tillerson will be meeting with 26 of 27 other NATO countries’ foreign ministers in Washington on Wednesday — all but Croatia — to discuss the ongoing anti-Islamic State coalition in Iraq and Syria. The official added Tom Shannon, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, will represent the United States at the NATO meeting in April if Tillerson doesn’t attend. (Trump has yet to nominate a deputy secretary of state despite being two months into office.)

But NATO experts say that isn’t enough. “Meeting with [foreign ministers] at the Anti-ISIS coalition gathering or a G-20 does nothing for NATO, an organization that is earnestly seeking U.S. guidance on how to adjust its agenda,” a Republican foreign policy expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told FP.

In February, both Defense Secretary James Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence visited Brussels — though Mattis used the trip to issue a veiled ultimatum to allies to pony up on defense spending.

Update: This article was updated to include the State Department spokesperson’s comments on new proposed dates for the NATO ministerial.

John Hudson contributed to this report.

Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer

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