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KIEV, Ukraine -- Six months into a job he didn't seek or particularly want, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appears to be slowly embracing a more traditional approach to American diplomacy after early signs of resistance.
While his plans for a potentially radical overhaul of the State Department, including steep budget and staffing cuts, continue to draw harsh criticism from the foreign policy establishment, Tillerson has in recent days taken steps to bolster his and his agency's role in an administration heavy with skeptics of the international order that previous presidents of both political parties spent decades building and nurturing.
Tillerson has taken the lead in pressing for a tough international response to North Korea's test of an intercontinental ballistic missile. He is preparing for an enhanced mediation role to resolve the crisis between Qatar and other Gulf Arab states. And, when he arrives in Kiev on Sunday to show support for Ukraine in its struggle with Russia, Tillerson will be accompanied by a newly named special envoy for the conflict, an appointment he made despite his oft-stated disdain for such specialty positions.
None of these moves would be considered especially noteworthy for Tillerson's immediate predecessors as secretary of state, all of whom subscribed to a conventional post-Cold War model of American leadership. And none will likely win plaudits from critics still fuming at Tillerson's acquiescence to President Donald Trump's withdrawal from global agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership on trade and the Paris climate accord.
But, taken together they suggest that the former Exxon Mobil CEO is departing from the low-key, risk-averse profile of his early tenure and becoming more hands-on as he adopts a foreign policy blueprint that broadens Trump's rigid "America First" governing principle to allow for greater flexibility in dealing with global hotspots.
Tillerson's one-day trip to Kiev comes less than three weeks after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko visited Washington and met with Trump to seek assurances of continued U.S. commitment to his country's sovereignty and territorial integrity as it struggles to fend off intervention by Moscow. More importantly, it comes less than 48 hours after Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Germany amid clouds of uncertainty and suspicion over Trump's desire to boost U.S.-Russia ties.
As such, the brief visit by Tillerson, who sat in on the Trump-Putin meeting in Hamburg, is an important symbolic gesture to Ukraine from the top diplomat in an administration seen by many to be too soft on Russia. Ahead of the trip, U.S. officials said Tillerson would stress U.S. support for ending the three-year conflict with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, which has cost some 10,000 lives, as well as for Ukraine regaining control of its border with Russia. He will also be pressing for economic and political reforms, the officials said.
Tillerson's announcement on Friday that he had chosen Kurt Volker to be "special representative for Ukraine negotiations" may help ease Ukrainian concerns further. Volker will oversee U.S. efforts to press Ukraine and Russia to fully comply with the Minsk Agreement, which lays out a roadmap for reducing tensions in Ukraine's east. The accord was worked out two years ago in the capital of Belarus by the leaders of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia but has yet to be implemented. Under the Obama administration, the U.S. had taken a hands-off approach to Minsk, allowing the Europeans to take the lead.
But administration officials said this week that the parties to Minsk were seeking a greater U.S. role. Volker, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, is widely seen as hawk on Russia and is close with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has been a vocal critic of U.S. policy on Ukraine specifically and on Russia more broadly. McCain said Friday that Volker was a "great choice" for the job.
Apart from Volker's background and new responsibilities, his appointment is notable for the fact that it happened at all. Tillerson has on multiple occasions, including in congressional testimony, derided what he believes is an over-reliance on special envoys whose numbers proliferated during the Obama administration. As he prepares to reorganize the State Department, the vast majority of existing special envoy positions remain vacant and many may be eliminated. However, Volker's appointment suggests Tillerson's initial opposition to such jobs is not absolute.
Another apparent sign of recalibration is Tillerson's decision to travel to Kuwait next week to explore further mediation in the Qatar crisis. Kuwait is leading a thus far unsuccessful effort to end a stubborn dispute between Qatar and its neighbors over support for extremism and simmering regional resentments. Those boiled over early last month when Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt cut ties with Qatar and imposed a blockade on the country. Qatar has rejected a series of demands made by the others, and no end to the dispute appears in sight.
All involved are strong U.S. partners, and both Qatar and Bahrain host major U.S. military bases, yet Trump, who some believe precipitated the crisis by siding with Saudi Arabia's position, and Tillerson have for weeks maintained that it is a "family" dispute that should be resolved among themselves without a significant outside role. Tillerson had made clear his reluctance to get too deeply involved, although he had met in Washington with senior officials from the feuding countries.
But with no apparent progress, the State Department warned last week that the dispute could drag on for weeks or months and "could possibly even intensify."
Just hours after making those comments on Thursday, department spokeswoman Heather Nauert announced that Tillerson would travel to Kuwait City "to discuss ongoing efforts to resolve the Gulf dispute." No onward travel was announced, but Kuwait has served as a base for Mideast shuttle diplomacy missions for previous secretaries of state.
Between Kiev and Kuwait, Tillerson will travel to Istanbul for meetings with top Turkish officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The trip comes at a moment of high tension in the U.S.-Turkey relationship, largely over U.S. support for Kurdish rebels in Syria who are playing a main role in the assault on the Islamic State group. Turkey views the Kurds as a threat and has made clear its opposition to the U.S. support.