WASHINGTON Feb 15 Rex Tillerson left on his
maiden foreign trip as U.S. secretary of state on Wednesday,
heading to Bonn to interact with counterparts from the G20 top
economies at a time many are wondering how far President Donald
Trump's "America First" message will reshape U.S. foreign
From North Korean provocations to fresh reports that Russia
has deployed a new cruise missile, concerns about China's
aggressions in the South China Sea, and conflicts in Yemen,
Syria and Ukraine, there is no shortage of global challenges.
But senior U.S. officials cast Tillerson's two-day trip as a
"listening tour," conceding that this may frustrate some of his
Tillerson will also participate in a series of sessions on a
shifting global order, cooperation with Africa and conflict
prevention. It will be a prelude to the G20 leaders summit in
Hamburg, Germany in July, which Trump is due to attend.
Allies worry about Trump's unpredictability and how far he
will go in warning China and Iran about their behavior, whether
he will back out of long-standing treaties, tear up the nuclear
agreement with Iran, build a border wall with Mexico or cozy up
Tillerson heads to the meetings following the resignation of
national security adviser Michael Flynn for misleading the White
House about his contacts with Russia's ambassador to the United
States. Flynn had been the new administration's main contact for
many foreign ambassadors to the United States.
"I think he is mostly going on a listening tour," said a
U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity, saying that
may disappoint U.S. allies. "If our (guy) says, 'well, I am just
here to listen,' that's going to be dispiriting."
Tillerson, the former Exxon Mobil CEO, has international
business experience but none in government. State Department
officials said he will meet with counterparts from Britain,
Saudi Arabia and Oman while in Bonn, and participate in larger
meetings on Yemen and Syria.
He also will hold his first meeting as secretary of state
with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who met regularly
with John Kerry on a ceasefire to end Syria's conflict.
The G20 is made up of developed economies and emerging
nations such as China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa
Jim Wilkinson, a senior adviser to former Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice, said it was vital for Tillerson to establish a
relationship with fellow ministers during his first trip.
"That chemistry with counterparts begins on the first trip,"
he said. "Secretary Tillerson and his counterparts will be
working on some of the toughest issues around the world and
that's going to require trust."
While Tillerson has been on the job for just two weeks and
may not be immersed in all subjects yet, Wilkinson said:
"Foreign ministers will be understanding that in the early days
he may not have all the answers, but they will want to know they
have a conduit to someone who can speak for the U.S."
(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Warren
Strobel and David Gregorio)