Shadow Government

For Tillerson, Showing Up at NATO Isn’t Enough

The alliance needs new ideas and fresh energy.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrives to attend a meeting on Syria at the World Conference Center in Bonn, western Germany, February 17, 2017. / AFP / POOL / Oliver Berg        (Photo credit should read OLIVER BERG/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrives to attend a meeting on Syria at the World Conference Center in Bonn, western Germany, February 17, 2017. / AFP / POOL / Oliver Berg (Photo credit should read OLIVER BERG/AFP/Getty Images)

Bowing to outside pressure, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is set to attend his first meeting with NATO’s foreign ministers on Friday. But that was not his initial plan. Scheduling problems originally gave the secretary of state two bad options: go to NATO and miss Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States (not good, given criticism that he is already turning into a no-show secretary) or stay home and send acting Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Shannon (sending the signal, “I see enough of you guys and NATO is a second tier priority”).

These scheduling conflicts happen all the time and usually get worked out. But here’s the kicker — NATO offered new dates and the State Department initially said no thanks. That message from Tillerson — essentially, “I’ll see you after my trip to Moscow” — got everyone riled up. The Swamp rose up as one in protest and sent Tillerson a strong counter message: You don’t see allies only after you’ve seen the Russians!

A few hours later State backed down. And so Tillerson will be in Brussels this Friday, no doubt miffed and with hat in hand. The lesson here is that leadership means showing up. While other ministers can opt out, that is not an option for the United States.

But Tillerson must do more than just show up. Now that he will attend the NATO Ministerial — NATO’s last big meeting before its summit on May 25 — the question is whether he will lead the alliance or just go through the motions, doing crossword puzzles as allies drone on? If he plans to lead, he will need to arrive armed with new ideas and fresh energy to take the alliance forward, and away from supposed obsolescence. But if he arrives just to fill the seat, that would be the worst of all — it would be better if he had not shown up at all.

At a minimum, Tillerson should lay the intellectual and policy foundation for President Donald Trump’s attendance at the NATO summit in May. Tillerson could provide the strategic underpinnings for the administration’s worldview — especially the role of the United States in Europe. We’ve heard the criticism, but what’s the positive outlook from the transatlantic leader? That could set up Trump to announce in May the specific plans he has in regard for NATO and in tackling burden sharing. Tillerson could also lift the veil a bit on the U.S. relationship with Russia, especially as it relates to deterrence in Europe. He has to say something about Russia, given his upcoming trip there. And it’s probably easier for Tillerson to talk with allies about Russia than for Trump to do so.

In addition to talking about Russia, foreign ministers will talk about ongoing NATO missions, such as NATO troops in the Baltics and Poland, NATO trainers in Iraq helping fight the Islamic State, NATO naval forces dealing with the worsening migrant tragedy in the Mediterranean, and NATO experts helping to establish governance in Libya. These missions show that NATO is not obsolete — but yes, NATO could certainly do more.

This is the area for a new push led by the United States. For instance, NATO could convene and host the counter-Islamic State coalition meetings currently being managed by the United States — there is no reason that the Defense Department and State Department have to run those meetings out of their back pockets. But NATO could especially do more in the post-conflict stage both in Iraq and in Syria. The rebuilding of those two nations will be a huge undertaking that cannot be done by the U.N. or any nation or coalition alone. NATO could take the initiative to work with the U.N. and the EU to begin sketching out how to help Iraq and Syria deal with the humanitarian needs born of years at war.

But most importantly, Tillerson can help Trump’s first NATO summit be a success by taking off the table any lingering doubt or suspicion about U.S. leadership of the transatlantic community. This is a leadership role important for the United States and a priority for presidents going back to Harry Truman. The United States leads the transatlantic community because America derives important benefits from its partnership with Europe. Perhaps the most important benefit for the United States is that Europe and America see the world in a similar way and share an understanding that — at a time when these common values are increasingly threatened — we need a strong and cooperative community to see our way through. The United States does not have to face these challenges by itself; unless it willfully drives partners away, or allows the transatlantic community to atrophy through benign neglect.

Photo credit: OLIVER BERG/AFP/Getty Images

Jim Townsend just completed eight years as President Barack Obama’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO. This capped more than two decades of working with European allies and partners to build a post-Cold War transatlantic community. Along the way, he worked on issues that ranged from NATO enlargement to managing coalitions for military campaigns in Libya, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, rebuilding U.S. force presence in Europe, and NATO reform. His greatest accomplishment is being married to Joan Townsend and having three wonderful children: Carolyn, Jimmy, and Beth.

Julianne ("Julie") Smith is director of the transatlantic security program at the Center for a New American Security. Prior to joining CNAS, she served as the deputy national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden from 2012 to 2013. Before going to the White House, she served as the principal director for European/NATO policy at the Pentagon. Smith lives in Washington with her husband and two children. Smith is a co-editor of Shadow Government.

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