Tillerson mixed messages leave European allies in despair
On the eve of his trip to Europe, Rex Tillerson gave a speech last week that European allies had waited months to hear: an "ironclad" promise of US support to its oldest allies.
The relief in European capitals lasted barely a day as reports surfaced of a White House plan to oust the US Secretary of State, plunging America's friends back into confusion over President Donald Trump's foreign policy.
The uncertainty is particularly acute, given Washington's leading role in crises in North Korea and Syria.
"Just as Tillerson comes to Brussels to give a public statement of support that the EU and Nato have wanted all along, it seems he has no mandate, that the guillotine is hanging over his head," said an EU official involved in diplomacy with White House officials.
"It leaves Europe just as doubtful as before about Trump."
US sources claimed on Thursday that the White House had a plan for CIA director Mike Pompeo to replace Tillerson but Mr Trump said on Friday he was not leaving and the Secretary of State said on Saturday the reports were untrue.
European leaders yearn for stability in US foreign policy. They are troubled by Mr Trump's 'America first' rhetoric and inconsistent statements on Nato and the EU.
In addition, Mr Trump's decision to pull out of the Paris climate change accord and his decision not to certify Iran's compliance with a nuclear deal undermine European priorities.
"The chaos in the administration doesn't help in the current geopolitical climate," said a senior French diplomat.
Early last week, Mr Tillerson, a former Exxon Mobil chief executive, delivered a long address in support of Europe in Washington more akin to traditional US policy.
"The United States remains committed to our enduring relationship with Europe. Our security commitments to European allies are ironclad," he told a think tank.
He said he would convey that message to the European Union and Nato. He is set to visit Brussels tomorrow and Wednesday, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe in Vienna on Thursday and Paris on Friday.
"If there were expectations that Tillerson might evolve into a counterweight to Trump, someone who could pass on messages from partners and exert moderating influence over American foreign policy - those expectations have been disappointed," said Niels Annen, foreign policy spokesman for Germany's Social Democrats in parliament.
Despite Mr Tillerson's pledge to reform the US foreign service, European governments take a dim view of how he has sought to cut costs at the State Department, with top diplomatic posts unfilled almost a year into the administration.
There is hope that if Pompeo is appointed he could rejuvenate the State Department after Tillerson, who is seen as ineffective, diplomats said. Pompeo is an unknown quantity in Europe but is viewed as closer to Trump.