Secretary of State Rex Tillerson plans to skip on his first official NATO meeting and will instead remain in the U.S. to meet Chinese president Xi Jinping before traveling to Moscow, according to the State Department.
In early April, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 28 member nations will gather in Brussels, Belgium, for a strategic summit. Rather than attend, Tillerson will be at President Donald Trump’s private Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida to play host to the Chinese leader ahead of a trip to Russia.
“After these consultations and meetings, in April [Tillerson] will travel to a meeting of the G7 in Italy and then on to meetings in Russia,” a State department spokesperson told Reuters, explaining that the U.S. will be represented at NATO by Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Shannon instead.
Tillerson’s absence from the NATO summit would mark the first time a U.S. secretary of state skipped the gathering since 2003.
“No matter how you spin it, this is unfortunate symbolism,” one European diplomat reflected. “We needed to hear his vision for the alliance.”
Tillerson’s decision to snub the meeting, however, will appear consistent with Trump’s previously expressed position that the NATO alliance is “obsolete.” On Saturday, Trump tweeted that NATO was disproportionately costing the U.S. “vast sums of money” due to a lack of contribution from Germany, a statement later disputed by Germany’s Defense Minister.
Despite what you have heard from the FAKE NEWS, I had a GREAT meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Nevertheless, Germany owes…..— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 18, 2017
…vast sums of money to NATO & the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 18, 2017
Erratic tweets and critical comments have had a very real impact and were described as concerning by many leaders of the member nations, whose confidence in U.S. commitment to the treaty is tested.
Tillerson’s favor of China and Russia over NATO allies also comes just one day after FBI director James Comey confirmed an ongoing investigation that is looking at the Trump campaign’s potential collusion with Russia during the 2016 presidential election.