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Tillerson Arrives in Europe like a ‘Ghost Ship’

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The month of November saw a marked increase in the phenomenon known in Japan as “ghost ships”—North Korean fishing vessels that wash ashore or into Japanese waters, often empty or filled with the remains of deceased sailors. It seems like a fitting image for a visit taking place half the world away in Brussels, where U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived yesterday for a European trip that will see him continue on to Austria and France, reported World Politics Review (US).

The parallels apply on a number of levels. Tillerson himself has been considered the political equivalent of a dead man walking—rumored to be unhappy with his boss and his job, and on his way out of the Trump administration—since at least this past summer. More recently, it was widely reported this week that the White House planned to replace him imminently with current CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Those reports were subsequently denied, but it seems reasonable to assume that Tillerson’s days in the Cabinet are numbered.

The institution he heads, the State Department, has also become a hollowed-out shell of its former self, with high-level posts unfilled and senior foreign service officers reportedly leaving in droves due to crumbling morale. As if to illustrate the problem, the U.S. currently has no ambassador to either Belgium or the European Union to welcome Tillerson to Brussels. Tillerson gamely portrays the devastation as part of a planned reorganization process, but it seems more accurate to say the State Department is being slowly euthanized due to what amounts to sheer arrogance: President Donald Trump has stated he has no need for its expertise, and Tillerson has done little to suggest he feels differently. It’s hard to imagine Tillerson countenancing any high-level executives at ExxonMobil, the global oil giant he headed before entering government service, conducting sensitive negotiations without the benefit of deep and experienced regional experts to guide and inform their decisions. Yet that is apparently how he sees fit to conduct U.S. diplomacy.

Here too, though, the ghost ship analogy is apt, for Tillerson conducts U.S. diplomacy in much the same way as these vessels sail and fish. His role since the early days of the administration have been to reassure nervous allies in Europe and Asia that U.S. policy, particularly regarding security guarantees, remains unchanged despite Trump’s provocative campaign promises to radically reorient these relationships. The problem is that on sensitive issues ranging from nuclear diplomacy with North Korea to the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar, Tillerson has been very publicly contradicted by his boss, often on Twitter. That leaves allied governments wondering who to believe, a problem exacerbated by Tillerson’s uncertain future and the lack of familiar interlocutors at the State Department to consult.

To complicate things even further, on other issues Tillerson seems to see eye to eye with the president’s iconoclastic approach to relations with friends and adversaries alike. He has explicitly downgraded human rights as a priority in U.S. foreign policy, arguing that advancing national interests is the only objective for U.S. diplomacy. In addition to demoralizing erstwhile civil society partners around the world, such an approach ignores the ways in which defending human rights and pluralism concretely advances U.S. national interests. He has also expressed disdain for multilateral diplomacy and international institutions like the United Nations. So if Tillerson is meant to be the good cop to Trump’s bad cop, he plays the part unconvincingly.

Finally, if the reception he received in Brussels is any indication, the ostensible goal of Tillerson’s current trip—to shore up ties with the EU and NATO allies—seems doomed to the same fate as Japan’s ghost ships. The U.S.-European agenda during President Barack Obama’s second term was dominated by five items: the Iran nuclear deal, climate change diplomacy, shoring up NATO solidarity in the face of Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, sealing a free trade deal with the EU, and cooperation on counterterrorism. All but the last are now the cause of anxiety, tension and strain, leaving an almost total void in terms of concrete cooperation between the U.S. and its key European allies.

Tillerson reportedly argued against leaving the Iran nuclear agreement at the time Trump ended up decertifying, if not quite torpedoing, the deal. But he has echoed Trump’s rhetoric on stiffening America’s posture with regard to Iran’s other problematic activities, such as its ballistic missile program—most recently yesterday during joint remarks he gave in Brussels with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. While he might find some support for that position, particularly in France, all of the European partners who helped negotiate the nuclear agreement reject the idea of conditioning support for the deal on further Iranian concessions on unrelated issues, something Mogherini again made clear yesterday in Brussels. Tillerson similarly advocated for remaining in the Paris climate change agreement, another instance in which he failed to sway Trump, who announced the U.S. withdrawal from the accord on the heels of his first European visit in May.

Tillerson, with the support of Defense Secretary James Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence, has perhaps enjoyed the most success in reassuring nervous NATO allies of America’s commitment to the alliance. But here too, Trump’s open display of hostility and contempt in his May visit to the alliance summit in Brussels, combined with his clear aversion to explicitly reaffirming his commitment to NATO’s collective defense obligations, have rattled nerves and undermined confidence, particularly in Germany.

As for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the U.S. and the EU, Trump’s repeated rhetorical assault on multilateral trade deals and his public attacks on perceived unfair trade practices by Germany and other European trading partners have put negotiations on ice.

That leaves the ad hoc coalition fighting the so-called Islamic State, a mission that will in all likelihood begin winding down in the near future. While cooperation among U.S. and European intelligence and security services will continue to address the threats that will arise as foreign recruits begin abandoning the group’s dwindling territorial holdings in Syria and Iraq, it is hardly the basis for a broad, robust and dynamic partnership.

That’s a shame, because any other administration in Washington, whether Republican or Democrat, would find a lengthy list of issues to cooperate on with a Europe that is beginning to emerge from a lengthy period of internal challenges. The relationship has never been free of cross currents and at times heavy seas requiring a steady hand at the helm. The squalls facing the Trump administration might all be self-created, but with U.S. diplomacy for all intents and purposes now a ghost ship, they will be all the more difficult to navigate.

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