Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says he plans to affirm an “ironclad” U.S. commitment to NATO during a visit to Belgium, Austria and France this week.
Dogged by reports by several media outlets that the White House is considering replacing him with CIA Chief Mike Pompeo, Tillerson called those reports “laughable.” President Donald Trump also tweeted that Tillerson is not leaving any time soon.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg dismissed Tillerson’s job insecurity speculation Monday as a distraction, saying the trans-Atlantic alliance “and NATO ministers are able to focus on the core tasks of the job we have to do despite any speculation and rumors.”
Stoltenberg also praised Tillerson’s strong personal commitment to the trans-Atlantic bond and to NATO. Tillerson is set to meet with Stoltenberg to discuss a range of global security issues.
The U.S. envoy to NATO, former Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, said that there has been no change to plans for two days of talks starting Tuesday in Brussels between Tillerson and his NATO foreign minister counterparts.
A senior State Department official briefed reporters ahead of the trip, Tillerson’s seventh visit to Europe since talking the job as chief U.S. diplomat. The official said while in Brussels, Tillerson will also meet with EU High Representative Federica Mogherini, have lunch with the 28 EU foreign ministers and meet with Belgian officials to discuss defense cooperation, Afghan strategy and the defeat of the so-called Islamic State.
The senior state department official said Tillerson will reinforce President Trump’s central message of “shared responsibility” in Europe and the global agenda that includes North Korea, Syria and issues related to Russia. The president has repeatedly called on NATO countries to pay more for mutual defense.
From Brussels, Tillerson will travel to Vienna for the annual meeting of the OSCE, with the emphasis on arms control and human rights, and the senior State Department official said, a message of support for Ukrainian sovereignty.
The official said his final stop will be in Paris “where we have a very special and deep cooperation with the French on a global agenda that encompasses issues on Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, North Korea and Sahel.”
But some analysts say Tillerson’s main obstacle abroad may be his own strained relationship with President Donald Trump, as he seeks to reassure U.S. allies at a time of multiple foreign policy challenges with North Korea and a potentially explosive U.S. decision that might be coming later this week on recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
The President of the American Academy of Diplomacy, former Ambassador Ronald Neumann told VOA: “The greatest effect on his ability to do his job is whether people are confident that he speaks for the president and it is the president who makes that uncertain from time to time with tweets and position changes.”
But Neumann added: “I think by and large NATO members are reasonably comfortable with what Tillerson has been doing with diplomacy.”
Aaron David Miller of the Wilson Center served five or six different Republican and Democratic secretaries of state and said the president’s treatment of Tillerson is unprecedented.
“No president ever undercut a working secretary of state while on a mission [to Asia], as he did in North Korea. No president ever adopted positions that were unethical to the ones that the secretary was taking on Qatar.”
But James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation said he finds there an been a healthy and open airing of differences on foreign policy views among Tillerson and other members of Trump’s team, and that this is appreciated abroad.
“By and large I think there is a recognition of a generally clear direction from U.S. foreign policy that a lot of our friends and allies appreciate,” he said. “And Tillerson, has -the leaders that I have talked to – think that he has well represented U.S. views and engagement with him has been helpful and useful.”