G20 Meeting

Tillerson’s Diplomatic Debut

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The Trump administration has gotten off to a shaky start in terms of foreign policy. All eyes will be on Mr. Tillerson to see if he can win back some trust on his first official trip abroad as U.S. secretary of state.

  • Facts


    • Germany, which holds the G20 presidency this year, is hosting a meeting of G20 diplomats on Thursday and Friday.
    • The summit will be the first time Rex Tillerson, the U.S. secretary of state, will meet his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, at an official level.
    • Participants are hoping to glean insight into the geopolitical and economic positions of the nascent administration of Donald Trump.
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Rex Tillerson
Rex Tillerson is meeting with his G20 counterparts later on Thursday in Bonn, Germany. Source: AP

World politics are making a stop in Germany, Sigmar Gabriel recently quipped.

Mr. Gabriel, Germany’s vice chancellor and foreign minister, was referring to a meeting of chief diplomats from the world’s 20 largest economies, otherwise known as the G20, which will take place in Bonn this Thursday and Friday. After the meeting, they will continue on to the Munich Security Conference over the weekend.

The guest who is drawing the most attention is undoubtedly Rex Tillerson, the new U.S. secretary of state and a former chief executive of Exxon Mobil. It will be the first time that Mr. Tillerson will meet with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in his capacity as one of the United States’ top public servants.

On his trip over the Atlantic, Mr. Tillerson was already annoying accompanying media. He chose a night flight because he wanted to sleep and he wouldn’t be available to journalists for that reason. He has also done away with State Department briefings that used to occur almost daily and he won’t be attending the Munich Security Conference after the G20 meeting either, leaving that to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Defense James Mattis.

Over the next few days, he will, however, be available to a fair few politicians on this, his first trip into the choppy waters of international diplomacy.

German diplomats have described his schedule as a kind of exercise in diplomatic speed dating.  He would meet briefly with Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir. And then with Sergey Lavrov, his Russian counterpart.

Mr. Gabriel, who had already met Mr. Tillerson in the U.S., greeted the American heartily as he arrived. But sources close to Mr. Gabriel, say that the German politician wants to know how close Mr. Tillerson will stick to Mr. Trump’s script. Doubtless other G20 foreign ministers have the same kinds of questions.

The summits come at a particularly chaotic time for the Trump administration. It was already struggling to fill key positions when Michael Flynn, whose ties with the Kremlin have been the source of much consternation for some U.S. officials, resigned from his post as national security advisor earlier this week.

Mr. Tillerson, who like his boss has been noticeably uncritical of Moscow in the past, must now also follow through on Mr. Trump’s recent assertion that Russia should return the Crimean peninsula to Ukraine.

“None of us are expecting things to calm down now.”

Advisor to German foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel

For the German government, it will be just as if not more important to see what comes out of a meeting between Mr. Tillerson and Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister. Mr. Trump has pointedly accused the Chinese of keeping their currency, the yuan, artificially low in order to boost their exports – at the expense of the U.S. He has threatened to let China be classified as a currency manipulator, a move that could spark a trade war between the world’s two largest economies.

In light of Mr. Trump’s protectionist rhetoric, which he first espoused on the campaign trail and continues to do so in the White House, G20 leaders are refraining from including a pledge to abolish barriers to global trade in their communique in summer 2017 when Germany hosts the G20.

The Russians and the Chinese aren’t the only ones hoping to glean some insight into Washington’s new view of the situation in eastern Ukraine and Syria – the Europeans would like to be in the know as well.

Many European leaders are convinced that the fighting in eastern Ukraine has intensified because Kiev and Moscow want to see how the U.S. will react. That conflict will be discussed on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference this weekend in the so-called “Normandy Format,” including the chief diplomats of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine.

It’s unclear whether Mr. Tillerson will be able to pursue a rational, measured agenda as part of an administration that includes Vice President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary James Mattis and some as-of-yet unconfirmed national security advisor.

“None of us are expecting things to calm down now,” an adviser of Mr. Gabriel’s said.


Matthias Brüggmann heads Handelsblatt’s foreign desk. To contact him: brueggmann@handelsblatt.com


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