Washington's top diplomat will not attend an upcoming NATO summit in Brussels. He was still set to attend talks with Russian and Chinese leaders around the same time.
The US State Department said on Tuesday that top diplomat Rex Tillerson would skip a NATO meeting in April, though he still had plans to travel to Russia later that same month. The announcement once again caused consternation amongst member nations as the administration of Donald Trump sends out mixed messages on its commitment to the alliance.
Officials gave no explanation for why Tillerson will be replaced by his acting deputy, Thomas Shannon, at the Brussels meeting. He does, however, still intend to join talks between President Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in April, as well as meetings in Italy and Russia later in the month.
"He has already met with officials from Ukraine. After these consultations and meetings, in April he will travel to a meeting of the G7 in Italy and then on to meetings in Russia," a senior official said, according to French news agency AFP.
Tillerson will be meeting many of NATO's foreign ministers at an upcoming meeting in Washington for members of the US-led coalition fighting "Islamic State" (IS) terrorists. Yet his absence at the Brussels meeting is notable after comments from Trump calling the organization "obsolete" and chastising allies, particularly Germany, for not meeting the required 2 percent of GDP for defense spending.
US Defense Secretary James Mattis, however, has made it clear during his first two months in office that the US fully supports the alliance.
A NATO official, speaking on condition of anonymity, brushed aside concerns by saying "it's up to allies to decide at what level they are represented." The official added that "the secretary general will continue his regular contacts with the US administration, which has confirmed its strong commitment to NATO, both in words and in deeds."
Tillerson's behavior, however, has caused some concern not only amongst eastern European allies worried about a resurgent Russia, but within the US as well. He still has not appointed a deputy or assistants, and has eschewed public events and press meetings in favor of maintaining a low profile.
es/kms (AFP, Reuters)