Tillerson Has Little Time for the United Nations

The U.S. secretary of state rebuffed an early meeting with the U.N. chief and is unlikely to attend a high-level Security Council meeting on South Sudan.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson boards his plane at Cologne Bonn Airport, western Germany, as he leaves after a meeting of Foreign Ministers of the G20 leading and developing economies on February 17, 2017. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson boards his plane at Cologne Bonn Airport, western Germany, as he leaves after a meeting of Foreign Ministers of the G20 leading and developing economies on February 17, 2017. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

António Guterres, the U.N. secretary-general, may be the world’s top diplomat. But he is not at the top of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s list of must-see foreign dignitaries.

Last month, State Department staffers recommended the two diplomats take a break during G-20 ministerial meetings in Bonn, Germany, to talk, according to two diplomatic sources briefed on the matter. Tillerson passed on the meeting, deferring to President Donald Trump’s U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, to take the lead in handling the administration’s dealings with the U.N. chief. He also missed a high-level meeting that Guterres attended. The U.N.’s own efforts to secure a face-to-face meeting or a phone conversation through the U.S. mission to the U.N. also haven’t borne fruit.

U.N. officials fear the snub may reflect a broader lack of interest by Tillerson in making the U.N. an early priority. But it also highlights the fact that Foggy Bottom — which is running on an acute shortage of diplomatic firepower — has yet to develop policies on a range of issues before the United Nations.

Generations of previous U.S. secretaries of state have sought to cultivate close ties with U.N. leaders to help rally international backing for U.S. foreign-policy goals. U.N. special envoys are at the center of peace efforts in trouble spots from Libya to Syria and Yemen, places where the United States has vital interests in ensuring stability.

“The U.N. is everywhere,” said Bathsheba Crocker, who served as assistant secretary of state during former President Barack Obama’s administration. “Having a relationship and learning how you are going to mutually help each other and support each other seems like something that every administration would want to try to do.”

Tillerson enjoyed direct access to some of the world’s most powerful leaders as the head of oil giant ExxonMobil. That experience may have molded a view of international relations in which the U.N. didn’t figure very prominently.

“Tillerson has spent his working life in a world of big international deals to which the U.N. is pretty much irrelevant,” said Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It would be odd if, given this background, Tillerson was rushing to New York. He was, after all, able to parlay with Putin pretty effectively while the Obama administration got bogged down in bad diplomacy over Syria with Sergei Lavrov and Vitaly Churkin.”

Neither the State Department nor the U.S. mission to the U.N. responded to requests for comment. But some officials challenged any suggestion that Tillerson dissed the secretary-general and said it’s only a matter of finding a convenient opportunity for the two to meet. They noted that Tillerson held meetings on Thursday with the head of the U.N. atomic energy agency and he participated in a meeting with foreign ministers and the U.N.’s Yemen envoy at the G-20 session in February, an indication of his interest in multilateral diplomacy.

The revelation comes as a top U.N. climate official, Patricia Espinosa of Mexico, the executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, said this week that Tillerson has not responded to her own request for a meeting. “I have not heard back,” Espinosa said, according to Bloomberg News. “They are a very important partner to us, and I’m looking forward to working together.’’

Some diplomats are watching to see whether Tillerson will attend a ministerial meeting hosted by British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson on South Sudan on March 23, according to U.N.-based diplomats.

The secretary of state’s absence would be noteworthy because the United States has long been designated as the lead coordinator on the U.N. Security Council on matters involving the troubled new nation.

One U.N.-based diplomat expressed doubt that Tillerson would attend the meeting and suggested that the United States is simply not ready for high-level engagement on the country: “They don’t really have a South Sudan policy.”

Asked if Tillerson would attend the ministerial meeting, Matthew Rycroft, Britain’s ambassador to the United Nations, said formal invitations have not gone out. But he suggested that Britain would be fine if Haley sat in the U.S. chair.

“Certainly Secretary Tillerson will be invited,” Rycroft told reporters Wednesday. “But of course the U.S. [is] in a different position than the rest of us in that they already have a cabinet member here in New York.” Diplomats noted that Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, frequently ceded the U.S. chair at the Security Council to Samantha Power, who was also a cabinet member, at ministerial meetings.

Still, the Trump administration’s seeming indifference to the United Nations contrasts sharply with previous administrations, particularly the Obama administration, which invited Guterres to the White House for a chat with the outgoing president on Dec. 2, weeks before he took up his duties as the U.N.’s ninth secretary-general.

Trump, meanwhile, held an initial phone conversation with Guterres after his election, but the two have not spoken since or scheduled a sit-down meeting.

Asked if there was a pattern of American officials snubbing top U.N. officials, Guterres’s chief spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, told reporters at U.N. headquarters: “I will leave the observations and the analysis of trends to all of you. Obviously, when we have a meeting to announce, we will do so.”

During their tenure, Obama and Kerry took advantage of the U.S. presidencies of the Security Council to preside over high-level meetings on nuclear disarmament, foreign terrorist fighters, and Syria.

The United States will have its own presidency of the council in April. Diplomats say Washington is mulling some sort of event to highlight U.S. support for Israel and the importance of combating Islamic extremism in the Middle East. But U.S. officials have informed their counterparts not to expect anything too ambitious and ruled out a ministerial meeting, according to a U.N.-based diplomat. So it appears unlikely Tillerson will attend.

Many of Tillerson’s predecessors placed considerable stock in establishing an early rapport with the secretary-general.

Madeleine Albright, a former U.N. ambassador, invited then-U.N. chief Kofi Annan to her swearing-in party.

The George W. Bush administration frequently clashed with Annan, a critic of Bush-era excesses in the war on terror, but the president’s top diplomats sought to cultivate close ties with Annan. And both Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice hosted early meetings with Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon at the State Department.

“Annan was no favorite of the Bush administration, given his opposition to the Iraq invasion, but Rice moved quickly to establish a relationship when she became secretary of state,” recalled Glenn Kessler, the author of a biography on Rice.

She made sure to give him a heads-up when John Bolton, a fierce U.N. critic, was nominated as U.N. ambassador, according to Kessler. Annan’s reaction: “Oh my God.”

FP senior staff reporter John Hudson contributed to this report.

This story was updated after publication. 

Photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Correction, March 3, 2017: The G-20 foreign ministers’ meeting was held in Bonn, Germany. A previous version of this article mistakenly said it was held in Hamburg. 

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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