Tillerson slowly embraces traditional diplomacy amid crises

  • FILE - In this June 21, 2017 file photo, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks at the State Department in Washington. Six months into a job he didn’t seek or particularly want, Tillerson appears to be slowly embracing a more traditional approach to American diplomacy after early signs of resistance. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File) Cliff Owen

  • Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will travel to Kiev today to show support for the Ukraine in its struggle with Russia. AP

Associated Press
Saturday, July 08, 2017

Six months into a job he didn’t seek or particularly want, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appears to be slowly embracing a more traditional approach to American diplomacy after early signs of resistance.

While his plans for a potentially radical overhaul of the State Department, including steep budget and staffing cuts, continue to draw harsh criticism from the foreign policy establishment, Tillerson has in recent days taken steps to bolster his and his agency’s role in an administration heavy with skeptics of the international order that previous presidents of both political parties spent decades building and nurturing.

Tillerson has taken the lead in pressing for a tough international response to North Korea’s test of an intercontinental ballistic missile. He is preparing for an enhanced mediation role to resolve the crisis between Qatar and other Gulf Arab states. And, when he arrives in Kiev on Sunday to show support for Ukraine in its struggle with Russia, Tillerson will be accompanied by a newly named special envoy for the conflict, an appointment he made despite his oft-stated disdain for such specialty positions.

None of these moves would be considered especially noteworthy for Tillerson’s immediate predecessors as secretary of state, all of whom subscribed to a conventional post-Cold War model of American leadership. And none will likely win plaudits from critics still fuming at Tillerson’s acquiescence to President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from global agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership on trade and the Paris climate accord.

But, taken together they suggest that the former Exxon Mobil CEO is departing from the low-key, risk-averse profile of his early tenure and becoming more hands-on as he adopts a foreign policy blueprint that broadens Trump’s rigid “America First” governing principle to allow for greater flexibility in dealing with global hotspots.

Tillerson’s one-day trip to Kiev comes less than three weeks after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko visited Washington and met with Trump to seek assurances of continued U.S. commitment to his country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity as it struggles to fend off intervention by Moscow. More importantly, it comes less than 48 hours after Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Germany amid clouds of uncertainty and suspicion over Trump’s desire to boost U.S.-Russia ties.

As such, the brief visit by Tillerson, who sat in on the Trump-Putin meeting in Hamburg, is an important symbolic gesture to Ukraine from the top diplomat in an administration seen by many to be too soft on Russia.

Another apparent sign of recalibration is Tillerson’s decision to travel to Kuwait next week to explore further mediation in the Qatar crisis. Kuwait is leading a thus far unsuccessful effort to end a stubborn dispute between Qatar and its neighbors over support for extremism and simmering regional resentments. Those boiled over early last month when Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt cut ties with Qatar and imposed a blockade on the country. Qatar has rejected a series of demands made by the others, and no end to the dispute appears in sight.

All involved are strong U.S. partners, and both Qatar and Bahrain host major U.S. military bases, yet Trump, who some believe precipitated the crisis by siding with Saudi Arabia’s position, and Tillerson have for weeks maintained that it is a “family” dispute that should be resolved among themselves without a significant outside role. Tillerson had made clear his reluctance to get too deeply involved, although he had met in Washington with senior officials from the feuding countries.

But with no apparent progress, the State Department warned last week that the dispute could drag on for weeks or months and “could possibly even intensify.”

Just hours after making those comments on Thursday, department spokeswoman Heather Nauert announced that Tillerson would travel to Kuwait City “to discuss ongoing efforts to resolve the Gulf dispute.”