News & Politics

Confusion at State Department Over Sec. Tillerson's Attendance at NATO Meeting

U.S. State of Secretary Rex Tillerson, left, shakes hands with China's President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China Sunday, March 19, 2017. (Lintao Zhang/Pool Photo via AP)

Over the last 24 hours, the State Department has created a mess over whether or not Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will attend the NATO foreign ministers meeting next month.

This morning, Reuters was reporting that four current and former State Department officials had confirmed that Tillerson would skip the NATO meeting next month in favor of staying in the U.S. to attend talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The report said he would later go to Italy for a meeting of the G-7 foreign ministers and late next month be in Russia for talks with President Putin.

Now, after originally turning down an offer from NATO to reschedule the meeting to accommodate Tillerson’s schedule, the State Department has let it be known that they are open to a new date.

Reuters:

The alliance had offered to change the meeting dates so Tillerson could attend both it and the Xi talks but the U.S. State Department rebuffed the idea, a former U.S. official and a former NATO diplomat, both speaking on condition of anonymity, said on Monday.

On Tuesday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the department put forward new dates for a meeting when Tillerson could come, noting that such a decision would have to be made by consensus among the 28 NATO members.

“We are certainly appreciative of the effort to accommodate Secretary Tillerson,” Toner told reporters. “We have offered alternative dates that the secretary could attend.”

He also sought to allay European concerns by saying that “the United States remains 100 percent committed to NATO.”

It was not yet clear if the NATO meeting would be rescheduled to accommodate Tillerson.

During his election campaign and on the eve of taking office in January, Trump called the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation “obsolete,” although he has since said he strongly supports the alliance.

If the U.S. is 100% committed to NATO, Secretary Tillerson has a funny way of showing it. NATO members, already on edge about the U.S. cozying up to Russia, could have interpreted Tillerson’s absence coupled with his trip to Russia as Trump playing favorites.

Our allies are overreacting. First, Tillerson will meet this week with foreign ministers representing countries fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. That includes all 28 NATO members. I will bet there will be plenty of sideline discussions about the NATO meeting in May that will feature heads of state.

Secondly, they are paranoid about the U.S. and Russia getting closer. Trump sees value in having Putin as a strategic partner to fight terrorism. And while Putin would love to drive a wedge between the U.S. and our NATO allies, it’s not going to happen. Where we agree with Russia, we will work together. Where we disagree, we will butt heads.

The confusion at the State Department is embarrassing, but not critical. There is speculation that the confusion is the result of Tillerson’s CEO management style. I don’t know about that, but there is certainly room for improvement.