Tillerson's week: How top US diplomat’s ‘big reveal’ offered little clarity

Diplomats gathered for the anti-ISIS conference in Washington and looking for signs of Trump’s commitment to his allies were left wondering about Tillerson's priorities and the direction of US foreign policy.

Cliff Owen/AP
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks at the Meeting of the Ministers of the Global Coalition on the Defeat of ISIS, Wednesday, March 22, 2017, at the State Department.

The event was billed as a counter-ISIS conference, but for Rex Tillerson it was more like a coming-out party – with him starring as the diplomatic debutante.

With all eyes on the new secretary of State with no formal diplomatic experience, the former ExxonMobil CEO offered the high-level representatives of the 68 countries in the US-led counter-ISIS coalition a bit of insight into his global philosophy and his approach to his new gig.

“When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority,” he said in opening the conference Wednesday. “We must continue to keep our focus on the most urgent matter at hand.”

Mr. Tillerson was talking specifically about the Middle East, underscoring his point that in a region “of many pressing challenges,” the defeat of the so-called Islamic State will be the United States’ “number one goal.”

But because the new chief US diplomat is such an unknown quantity in the rarefied circles of international relations – and because he represents a new president whose foreign-policy vision and commitment to traditional alliances remain unclear – those words echoed through the flag-appointed State Department conference hall like an invitation to speculate about what other priorities Tillerson might have in mind.

In the run-up to Wednesday’s conference, former US officials, foreign diplomats, and international affairs experts spoke of the meeting that would draw many of America’s major global partners as the first test for the reclusive and media-shy Tillerson.

But by the end of the week, there seemed to be little sense among those same observers of any new clarity about Tillerson or his priorities – or about the foreign policy of America’s unconventional new president.

What did it mean, some European diplomats wondered out loud, that Tillerson had decided he would skip a NATO foreign ministers’ meeting in April – in effect the new secretary of State’s first opportunity to dispel lingering doubts about President Trump’s commitment to the trans-Atlantic Alliance?

By the end of the week NATO officials announced they were working with the State Department (and the 27 other Alliance members) to find a new date for the foreign ministers’ meeting that would work with Tillerson’s schedule. (The State Department announced Friday afternoon that Tillerson would travel to NATO headquarters in Brussels March 31).

Preference for big-power relations?

But by then the damage was done. What was to be made of the fact that a chief US diplomat who advised his colleagues of the importance of focusing on the “most urgent matter at hand” was initially prepared to forgo his first NATO meeting – yet visit Moscow a short time later?

Some said the NATO flap underscored the Trump administration’s apparent preference for big-power relations and one-on-one diplomacy over multilateral venues. One reason given for Tillerson’s inability to make the long-scheduled April 5-6 NATO meeting was that it conflicted with his plans to accompany the president to his reception of Chinese leader Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago, the president’s Florida retreat.

But others said Tillerson and the Trump administration were simply showing the world that they are newbies to the realm of global diplomacy, as-yet unorganized and unschooled in the art of managing the expectations that much of the international community has of the sole superpower and leader of the free world.

Chile’s ambassador to Washington, Juan Gabriel Valdés, said in conversation with reporters Thursday that there was no doubt that signals emanating from the new US administration about America’s shifting approach to issues it has long led – such as global trade and international economic reform – have “produced a certain amount of uncertainty and even perplexity in Latin America.”

More time needed

Citing a general sense among many US partners that they have been left to wonder just what the Trump administration’s policies will be toward the region – and in particular concerning trans-Pacific trade – Mr. Valdés said, “We understand the administration needs time, and we want the administration to take all the time it needs to organize itself.”

But he also acknowledged that countries like Chile – or the other signatories of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal from which Trump has withdrawn the US – aren’t going to sit idly by and wait on Washington.

Some ISIS conference attendees indicated that while they understood a new secretary of State and new administration need time to settle in, they had come to Washington hoping for more decisive action.

“I understand that the Trump administration is new and needs some time, but this [battle to destroy ISIS] is urgent,” said French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault. Saying he “was hoping for more details, more specific plans” concerning what Tillerson promised will be an “accelerated” counter-ISIS campaign, Mr. Ayrault said he learned that the administration is conducting a policy review before launching what will be the battle to take back Raqqa, ISIS’s self-declared capital in northern Syria.

“I just hope this review doesn’t take too long,” he added, noting that France – the US’s closest partner in Syria operations – has been pressing for a Raqqa offensive for the past year.

Post-ISIS plan unclear

The French diplomat also suggested he would leave Washington with the sense of an administration that has not yet settled on a clear post-ISIS game plan for Iraq and Syria.

Ayrault says he was heartened to hear Defense Secretary James Mattis declare that a military response to ISIS “is not sufficient” and that a significant post-conflict reconstruction and political program would be essential.

But given those words from the Pentagon, he said it was unclear to him what Tillerson meant when he told the conference that, “As a coalition, we are not in the business of nation-building or reconstruction.”

Tillerson appeared to acknowledge the lack of clarity from Washington, noting in his speech that “a more defined course of action is still coming together.”

In the meantime, allies and partners continue to wonder about America’s priorities, about the time it will take for the US to settle on policy for “the most urgent matters at hand” – and about whether or not the new secretary of State and administration intend to continue to lead the free world.

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