BONN, Germany – Recently-installed U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has his work cut out for him.
On his first overseas trip as America's top diplomat this week, Tillerson will face a blizzard of questions about the Trump administration's foreign policy from nervous Asian and European allies. And there will be penetrating inquiries from America's watchful rivals like Russia and China, who will be eager to seize on any miscues or gaffes for their own advantage.
Tillerson arrived in Germany late Wednesday for a meeting of the foreign ministers of the Group of 20 nations. He will be playing defense amid the chaos and turmoil caused by the firing of national security adviser Michael Flynn for misleading officials about his contacts with Russia.
In Bonn, the Cold War capital of the former West Germany, Tillerson will come face-to-face on Thursday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, a seasoned and wily diplomat who sparred, often successfully, with past U.S. secretaries of state.
President Donald Trump chose Tillerson for the job in part because of his business experience and relationship with Russia while he was CEO of oil giant Exxon Mobil. His meeting with Lavrov will be a first test of whether that business acumen — which led to great profits for Exxon and Russian President Vladimir Putin bestowing a friendship award upon him — can translate into success in a high-stakes diplomatic arena.
Tillerson has taken a low-key and reserved approach in his first two weeks on the job and declined the opportunity to speak with reporters traveling with him. As America's top diplomat, he has yet to comment publicly on developments with Russia, its alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential election or its actions in Syria and Ukraine.
At his confirmation hearing last month, he voiced conventional concerns about Russia's behavior and said they should be addressed by projecting a forceful and united front. Like others in the administration, he hasn't been specific about how to repair damaged ties or whether doing so might involve lifting U.S. sanctions imposed on Russia after its 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region.
U.S. officials accompanying Tillerson said they didn't expect him to stray from well-honed U.S. demands for Russia to abide by commitments it has made, along with appeals for cooperation in areas in which the two nations have common interests. These include the fight against the Islamic State group.
Nonetheless, the eyes of many will be focused on Tillerson's meeting with Lavrov for clues as to how the Trump administration intends to deal with Russia, particularly given the revelations about Flynn and the various U.S. investigations into Russian activity before the U.S. presidential election.
In Bonn, Tillerson will also meet privately and in small groups with the top diplomats of Britain, Turkey, Italy, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Japan, Argentina and Brazil. One meeting focuses on the worsening situation in Yemen, where a U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition is battling Shiite rebels believed to be supported by Iran. Another concerns Syria's violence.
Tillerson will be hoping to reassure his European colleagues of the Trump administration's commitment to trans-Atlantic institutions like NATO and the European Union. It's a similar mission to that of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who is in Brussels and will attend a security conference in Munich this weekend. There, Mattis will be joined by Vice President Mike Pence.