USA Foreign Policy First Look

US Secretary of State Tillerson to skip meeting of NATO foreign ministers

Rex Tillerson's decision to miss his first meeting with NATO foreign ministers has raised concerns that President Trump's commitment to the alliance might be wavering.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, right, is briefed by US Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, the commander of the United Nations Command, Combined Forces Command and United States Forces Korea, as a North Korean soldier, rear right, takes a photograph through a window at the U.N. Command Military Armistice Commission meeting room on Friday at the border village of Panmunjom, which has separated the two Koreas since the Korean War.
Lee Jin-man/AP/File
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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will skip a semi-annual NATO summit set for early April, in a rare no-show for the top diplomat from the country that serves as the alliance’s de facto leader.

Mr. Tillerson will instead attend an overlapping two-day talk in Florida between President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, leaving Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Shannon to represent the United States at the NATO meeting, where European governments hold discussions on nuclear policy and strategic matters of high confidentiality.

The month after the summit, Tillerson will attend a G7 meeting in Sicily, then travel to Moscow to meet with top diplomats from Russia, topping off a schedule that seems to underscore early signs of a radical shift in diplomacy under the Trump administration – one that has ruffled feathers with many old allies.

"No matter how you spin it, this is unfortunate symbolism," one senior European diplomat told Reuters, adding that it undermined confidence-building visits to NATO headquarters made by Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence in February.

The Trump administration has been unusually forceful in pressing a longstanding US complaint about an imbalance in financial contributions to the alliance, which Mr. Trump once described as “obsolete.” Even as Mr. Mattis worked to reassure allies during that February visit, calling the bloc "the most successful and powerful military alliance in modern history," he also exhorted member countries in strong terms to make concrete progress in 2017 toward dedicating more of their economic output to defense contributions.

"America cannot care more for your children's future security than you do," he told them at a closed-door meeting, according to prepared remarks provided to Reuters at the time.

"America will meet its responsibilities, but if your nations do not want to see America moderate its commitment to this alliance, each of your capitals needs to show support for our common defense," he added.

News of Tillerson’s decision comes after an icy meeting between Mr. Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday – one followed by a Trump tweet accusing Germany of owing “vast sums to NATO & the United States.”

US officials suggested on Monday that Tillerson’s presence at the NATO summit was unnecessary, given that ministers from 26 NATO countries will attend a conference this week in Washington on defeating the Islamic State. But several diplomats from the alliance told Reuters that they were unhappy that Tillerson has not offered to host a separate, NATO-exclusive meeting during their visit.

A diplomat speaking anonymously to Reuters noted that Tillerson's plans to visit Moscow later in May, and the Trump administration's slights against the alliance, combined with its gestures of warmth toward Russian President Vladimir Putin, are cause for concern among some NATO allies in the former Soviet bloc.

"We needed to hear his vision for the alliance," the diplomat told Reuters.

One senior French diplomat said the US State Department still seemed to be suspended in a transition phase. 

"We still don't see the role of the State Department in the new US administration. Tillerson has been discreet and a great number of posts have not been filled so the modus operandi is still in limbo," the diplomat said.

This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.