Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to skip Nato meeting and visit Russia instead

Mr Tillerson is set to meet with Chinese officials at President Trump's Florida club, Mar-a-Lago, the same time as the Nato summit and will travel to Moscow later in April

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The Independent US

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is skipping a major North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) Summit, opting to meet with China and Russia instead and people are worried about the message that sends. 

The Nato summit is scheduled for 5-6 April, but the State Department confirmed that Mr Tillerson would meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping at President Trump’s Florida club, Mar-a-Lago, from 6-7 April. 

He is also scheduled to visit Russia in April after a Group of 7 meeting in Italy, a State Department spokesperson told Reuters. 

Mr Tillerson is set to meet with 26 of the 27 foreign ministers of Nato member countries on 22 March. The meeting will include Secretary of Defence James Mattis and will be focused solely on counterterrorism and the eradication of Isis. 

Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg will also be in attendance at the counterterrorism meeting. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Shannon is supposed to represent the US at the April Nato summit. 

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the move to skip the main summit sends “a most unfortunate signal.” 

It is not unprecedented for a US Secretary of State to miss a Nato meeting. But, Jorge Benitez a Senior Fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security and Director of NATOSource, told The Independent that it a "major issue" because "US plays a leading role in the Alliance and it is difficult to make important Nato decisions without our top leaders participating and building agreement between the 27 other allies." 

Matthew Wallin, Senior Fellow at American Security Project, told The Independent that it “may have just been a scheduling error…[but] it’s an unfortunate error.”

Mr Wallin said that given the proposed budget in which Mr Trump committed an extra $54 billion to defence, skipping the summit “may not send a message, but could be received as one by allies.” 

Mr Benitez cited a Reuters report that stated Nato offered to reschedule the meeting so Mr Tillerson could meet Mr Xi, but that the State Department had refused. 

"If true, Tillerson’s behaviour is a slap in the face to America’s strongest allies," said Mr Benitez. 

The meeting would have been a good opportunity to gain much-needed multilateral diplomacy experience for the former Exxon CEO as well as sending a signal of a reciprocal relationship, explained Mr Benitez. 

President Trump has been open in his criticism of Nato, calling it “obsolete” and saying countries who contribute less than the agreed upon two per cent of GDP like Germany, “owe” the US for its military assistance. 

He has also said on numerous occasions that he wants a better relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a man he says he respects. 

The decision to schedule a visit to Russia, not meeting officials in a third country or the US, comes the day after a House of Representatives hearing with FBI Director James Comey, who confirmed the agency is investigating ties between the Trump 2016 presidential campaign and Russia in the context of Russian interference in the election. 

Mr Wallin said that though Russia, China, and Isis are important foreign policy priorities for the US for a variety of reasons, those relationships should “not [come] at the expense of Nato allies.” 

Brian Klaas, ‎Fellow in Comparative Politics at London School of Economics, told The Independent that “if Vladimir Putin had a wishlist, near the top of it would be Trump calling NATO “obsolete,” then having an icy meeting with Angela Merkel, before Secretary of State Tillerson snubs NATO by missing a key summit.

These could be damaging moves to US foreign policy even without Mr Trump’s rhetoric on Nato and Russia, but Mr Klaas said there is a growing distrust in the EU about Mr Trump’s commitment to a Western security alliance. 

Mr Trump not sending Mr Tillerson to the Nato summit is “raising alarms across Europe — and in the Baltic states in particular — as to whether the United States truly believes in NATO and will honor its commitments to it,” explained Mr Klaas. 

Though Mr Tillerson will have a chance to meet Nato colleagues at the Isis meeting with Mr Mattis in Washington, Mr Klaas said “security is about far more than just terrorism.” 

Dr Jill Russell, American military and diplomatic historian, told The Independent said relegating Tillerson’s relationship with Nato colleagues to the anti-Isis meeting with Defence department also sends the signal that the State Department is “not a power” in this administration. 

Many have criticised Mr Trump’s 28 per cent cut to the budget of the State Department in his proposed budget, because diplomacy is necessarily a large part of the US security agenda. 

Ms Russell also noted that Nato is both a political and military alliance and that Americans “generally focus too much on force and the tactical, at the risk of diplomacy and strategy.” 

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