Senior government leaders are often called on to be in more than one place at a time. They make choices. Not everyone agrees with those choices. Sometimes deputies go instead. This happens to every country; the more global a nation’s interests, the more it happens. None of this is new.
Yet a decision to have Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attend a meeting between President Trump (Tillerson’s boss) and Chinese President Xi rather than a NATO ministers gathering (i.e., Tillerson’s peers) in early April has been blown up into yet another end-of-the-world scenario. The fact that Tillerson will attend an event in Russia weeks later was somehow thrown into the mix and the resulting cake was pronounced proof that the U.S.-NATO relationship is in tatters.
It is fully reasonable to debate which event, meeting with Xi or NATO, is the best use of Tillerson. It’s just not a hard debate to resolve.
“Skipping the NATO meeting and visiting Moscow could risk feeding a perception that Trump may be putting U.S. dealings with big powers first, while leaving waiting those smaller nations that depend on Washington for security,” two former U.S. officials said.
Bigger stuff over smaller stuff, who could imagine?
Despite much rhetoric, NATO has been a stable, predictable relationship for the United States over decades. Tillerson, and the U.S., will be represented at the April event by the familiar (he’s worked for State since 1984) and competent Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Shannon. Tillerson may be skipping the event; the United States is not. And FYI, Colin Powell skipped the same meeting once as Secretary of State.
Meanwhile, Trump is set to attend a NATO summit in Brussels in May. Tillerson met his NATO counterparts at an anti-ISIS conference on March 22. State is proposing other dates for NATO’s foreign ministers to gather. State Department spokesperson Mark Toner stated in the midst of all this “the United States remains 100 percent committed” to the alliance.
NATO is covered.
China meanwhile is dead center on action. China will play a significant role in anything to do with North Korea. China and U.S. allies Japan and South Korea face continued friction in the South China Sea, with the U.S. involved as well. China is one of America’s most significant trading partners, and holds considerable U.S. Treasury debt. Weigh all that against sending a signal to NATO about a problem in the alliance that sort of doesn’t even exist outside the self-created media spectacle.
And the same people criticizing Tillerson for attending the meeting between Trump and Xi have only recently criticized Tillerson for not attending meetings between Trump and other world leaders.
Problems with Tillerson’s plan to go to Russia weeks after the missed NATO meeting are just conflation. Tillerson will be doing all sorts of things following the NATO meeting and simply throwing Russia into this NATO story is pure sensationalism, a desperate attempt to get the news hook of the moment, Putin, into the headlines and imply more diplomatic naughtiness on the part of Trump.
Much of the can’t-win-either-way positions taken on Tillerson flow from two interlocking issues.
The first is the trope that basically anything the Trump administration does is wrong, dangerous, and reckless. Politico comes out with it, saying “Two months and a string of eyebrow-raising decisions later, people in and outside the State Department wonder if there’s any tradition Tillerson thinks is worth keeping.” Suggest negotiations and you’re too soft. Rattle the saber and you’re tempting Armageddon.
The second is Tillerson’s disdain for the media. The media as a rule is nothing but self-righteous and jealous, ready to wave the flag, wrap themselves in it, then throw themselves writhing to the ground claiming they alone stand between The People (who no longer trust them) and the abyss. Tillerson didn’t take a press pool with him to Asia, and this set of the latest round. Left out of course is that the press could and did travel commercially to Asia longside Tillerson and missed out only on the possibility of some back-of-the-official-plane leaking.
This will become a self-licking ice cream cone, as 24/7 press criticism of Tillerson makes him even less likely to engage with a press that will seize on his comments to criticize him further.
It is also deeply amusing to watch the press decry the lack of official State Department briefings that they for years criticized as being content free and little more than propaganda. It reminds of an old joke — Q: How was the food on your vacation? A: Terrible! And such small portions!
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