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What Does Tillerson's Russia Meeting Mean For US Foreign Policy?

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U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov shake hands prior to their talks in Moscow, Russia today.
Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
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A little more than a week after the chemical weapons attack in Syria and subsequent U.S. airstrikes, the world is looking to the Trump administration to see what’s next for U.S.-Russia relations.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s meeting with Russian officials today has raised questions about the trajectory for the new administration’s foreign policy.

“The Trump administration likes action. That’s what they do, but there’s no doctrine behind it,” said national security expert Juliette Kayyem on Boston Public Radio today. “Russia does seem to have the upper hand in these meetings, because they have a very compelling case: that we don’t have any policy.”

Tillerson met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov today, and Tillerson admitted the discussions were tense.

“The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship,” said Tillerson during a news conference after the meeting.

They discussed topics related to Syria, North Korea and Ukraine, all of which have renewed urgency after the airstrikes last week.

The relationship between Russia and the U.S. has declined as Putin and his administration resist pointing blame at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The U.S., on the other hand, has condemned Assad.

Foreign Minister Lavrov implicitly cautioned the U.S. against military intervention in Syria, a warning that has some credence for Kayyem.

“Every time, we think we could do it slightly different this time — Libya, if only we’d gotten in later it’d be fine, and Syria if only we’d gotten earlier,” she said. “Maybe there’s something about our military intervention that doesn’t make a lot of sense in the world.”

Kayyem said the solution will likely be political, and will include Assad as the leader of Syria.

President Trump has called Assad as an “animal,’ a characterization Tillerson defended today during the press conference, saying Assad brought it on himself.

Tillerson has faced criticism for his lack of experience and for his ties to Putin. More recently, however, the spotlight has been cast on his relationship to the press.

The secretary of state left behind his press pool during the meeting at the Kremlin today.

“He’s made a lot of mistakes, he doesn’t have a profile, he seems to enjoy antagonizing his press corps, which means that what we know about what’s going on in Russia right now is coming from the Russian pool, because Tillerson abandoned the U.S. pool," Kayyem said.

Kayyem speculated this Russia meeting is aimed at proving Tillerson’s capability, in addition to smoothing over fraught U.S.-Russia relations.

“Part of what this is, I think, is that there’s a lot of pressure on Tillerson to prove to the world that he should be secretary of state,” she said. “On this little jaunt, he’s already made mistakes.”

Juliette Kayyem is a national security expert, founder of Kayyem solutions and host of The SCIF. She’s also on the faculty of the Kennedy School. Her book, "Security Mom: My Life Protecting the Home and Homeland" is out in paperback. To hear her interview in its entirety, click on the audio player above.

WGBH News coverage is a resource provided by member-supported public radio. We can’t do it without you.
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