Yes, but did he allow anyone to look him in the eye? Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wowed his fellow NATO allies at an all-hands meeting, rescheduled to ensure his inclusion, after issuing a strong statement of support for the Western alliance. Both the president and Congress support NATO, Tillerson told them in his address, and that applied especially to the threat from Russia:
Facing a skeptical crowd of fellow foreign ministers during his first visit to NATO, Rex Tillerson won applause for lunchtime remarks about the need for strength and unity in dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin, five diplomats who were in the room told POLITICO. …
But it was at lunch that he won applause. After one minister spoke of taking a two-tier approach with Russia, adding that “it takes two to tango,” Tillerson responded: “Sure, you can dance with Russia and you might also gain something out of it. But for sure you cannot tango with [Sergey] Lavrov because he is not allowed to dance that one.” The implication, diplomats said, was that only one man is in charge in Russia.
That got an ovation from the gathered envoys, according to Politico Europe’s source, who added, “This is not metaphorically speaking. He actually got applause.” The unnamed ambassador painted Tillerson’s strong support for NATO as even more impressive than that of Defense Secretary James Mattis a month ago:
“I’ll be honest, we didn’t know what we were getting into,” the ambassador said, adding: “Boy, did he deliver: he was very, very clear about the United States standing by its allies. In fact, unlike Mattis, who if you remember conditioned his support for the alliance, Tillerson’s support was unconditional.”
“He said, ‘we stand by our friends, we stand by Article 5, no ifs or buts.’”
The AFP report from the meeting emphasizes the strong statement from Tillerson in support of the NATO alliance, and harder words for Russia as well:
Tillerson told the alliance’s forum with Ukraine co-chaired by Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin that “American and NATO support for Ukraine remains steadfast” in the wake of “Russia’s aggression against Ukraine” three years ago when it annexed Crimea.
“Today, Russia’s ongoing hostility and occupation is compromising our shared vision of a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace,” Tillerson said.
He vowed that the US administraiton will keep sanctions in place until Russia reverses the actions that triggered them and oppose any further bid by Russia to redraw Ukraine’s borders.
He also pressed Russia to fulfill its obligations under the Minsk agreements to end the war in eastern Ukraine, where he said “Russian-led separatist forces” are fighting Ukrainian government forces.
It wasn’t all peaches and cream, however — at least not according to the Washington Post. Tillerson talked tough on Russia, but also on the financial obligation of American allies, a topic raised by Mattis as firmly in February:
“As President Trump has made clear, it is no longer sustainable for the U.S. to maintain a disproportionate share of NATO’s defense expenditures,” Tillerson told the foreign ministers. “Allies must increase defense spending.”
The effort has met with resistance from German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, who said the push from Washington was unrealistic and based on a mistaken interpretation of the spending targets, which are not binding. Germany is NATO’s largest economy after the United States, but it lags far behind in its defense spending. Twisting Berlin’s arm to increase its military expenditures is key to Trump’s effort to shift more of the burden for Europe’s defense to Washington’s NATO partners.
“More money doesn’t mean more security,” said Gabriel, who is a member of Germany’s center-left Social Democratic Party and has long been skeptical of defense spending increases. He said that meeting NATO spending guidelines would require Germany to pour an additional $37 billion a year into its defense budget, which he said was “totally unrealistic.” NATO leaders have pledged to increase annual defense outlays to 2 percent of their gross domestic products by 2024, but those shares are targets rather than requirements.
Interestingly, while Politico Europe painted Tillerson’s engagement as a triumph, the Washington Post report suggests a much less enthusiastic reception:
NATO diplomats said the closed-door meetings with Tillerson were cordial. But some quietly criticized him for spending less than five hours on the ground in Brussels and returning to the United States before the meetings fully finished. … “Going to Moscow before seeing members of the alliance did not go down well,” a senior NATO diplomat said ahead of the meeting, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk frankly about allied perceptions of the Trump administration.
However, AFP had a different take on both Tillerson’s reception and the reaction to the funding talk:
A NATO official later told reporters however that Tillerson’s funding demands were “well received” by the ministers, who told him what they were doing to meet their pledges.
Hmmm. This video avail from Reuters seems to support the Politico and AFP reports that it was friendly enough. Maybe the Washington Post got confused by all the eye contact Tillerson received in this grip-and-grin.