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“Scratching their heads”

Secretary of State Tillerson rattles European allies with plans to skip his first NATO meeting

Secretary of State Tillerson rattles European allies with plans to skip his first NATO meeting

President Trump’s regular criticism of NATO already had America’s European allies on high alert, and a new report that the U.S. Secretary of State plans to skip his first NATO meeting next month will only heighten fears about the nation’s commitment to the alliance, analysts warn.

U.S. officials told Reuters on Monday that Rex Tillerson plans to skip the April 5-6 talks in Brussels between foreign ministers of NATO countries and instead attend talks with Chinese premier Xi Jinping at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida on April 6-7. U.S. officials said U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Shannon will attend the Brussels summit in his place.

It’s rare for the U.S. Secretary of State to miss one of the group’s quarterly meetings – the last time was 14 years ago – and Tillerson’s no-show at his first NATO summit will not go unnoticed.

“It reinforces the belief that Trump does not entirely value NATO, that he is more inclined to engage and build relationships with countries like Russia, that he has very little interest in appealing to the concerns of European states,” Xenia Wickett, head of the U.S. and the Americas program at the Chatham House think tank, told VICE News.

On the campaign trail, Trump called NATO “obsolete” and questioned whether the U.S. would intervene to defend NATO allies who came under attack — a core pledge under the mutual defense treaty — if those countries had not met the alliance’s target of spending 2 percent of their GDP on defense.

Despite recent assurances from his administration, Trump has continued to criticize NATO allies, standing by unsubstantiated claims that Britain’s spy agency helped Obama wiretap his New York offices, and accusing Germany of owing the alliance “vast sums of money” for not meeting defense spending targets.

“The Europeans are left to continue scratching their heads as to how they should engage with Washington,” Jonathan Eyal, International director at the Royal United Services Institute, said.

Trump’s erratic behavior has left NATO allies unsettled, particularly former Soviet states in the Baltic region living in the shadow of an increasingly assertive Russia. Tensions are growing in the region, with Russia warning Monday that NATO’s increased military presence in countries in the former Soviet zone of influence could spark an arms race.

To make matters worse, the U.S. reportedly rebuffed a NATO offer to change the summit dates so Tillerson could attend both their meeting and the Xi trip. Coupled with Tillerson’s scheduled Russian visit in April, the U.S. is sending a signal that the Trump administration is prioritizing a closer relationship with Moscow and great power politics with Beijing over its longstanding relationship with Europe, said Wickett.

“No matter how you spin it, this is unfortunate symbolism,” one senior European diplomat told Reuters.

While European governments have yet to offer official statements on Tillerson’s decision to stay away, the news was criticized at home. U.S. Representative Eliot Engel, the senior Democrat on the U.S. House of Representatives foreign affairs committee, said in a statement that skipping the talks was “a grave error that will shake the confidence of America’s most important alliance.”

“I cannot fathom why the Administration would pursue this course except to signal a change in American foreign policy that draws our country away from Western democracy’s most important institutions and aligns the United States more closely with the autocratic regime in the Kremlin,” he said.

Asked about Tillerson’s absence, a NATO official said it was “up to Allies to decide at what level they are represented” at the ministerial meetings, which is described as “important regular events.” The official continued that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was due to meet U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in Washington Tuesday, and that Stoltenberg would “continue his regular contacts with the U.S. administration, which has confirmed its strong commitment to NATO, both in words and in deeds.”

U.S. officials said Tillerson will meet Wednesday with foreign ministers from 26 of the 27 other NATO countries, except Croatia, at a gathering of the anti-ISIS coalition in Washington, but will not have a separate NATO-focused meeting.

Cover: (Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji)

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