Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will travel to Europe for meetings with Turkish officials and then a visit to NATO headquarters at the end of the month, the State Department announced Friday.
Tillerson's visit to NATO, scheduled for March 31, was announced days after he came under fire for deciding to skip a meeting of the NATO ministers that takes in early April. But it will also take place one day after he travels to Turkey, a NATO ally that has had fraught relations with the United States and European countries in recent months.
"Secretary Tillerson will reaffirm Turkey's important role in ensuring regional stability, and he will discuss the way forward with our campaign to defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq," the State Department bulletin said.
The trip could give Tillerson an opportunity play peacemaker between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and European members of NATO. Erdogan, in an effort to win a constitutional referendum that would expand his power, dispatched administration officials to Europe to seek support for the changes among expatriate Turkish citizens. When German and Dutch leaders blocked those campaign appearances, Erdogan invoked national embarrassments; he criticized the Dutch for failing to prevent the Srebrenica massacre, the worst mass killing in Europe since World War II, and said that "Europe, like before World War II, is a racist, fascist, cruel Europe."
Erdogan also threatened to make Europe bear the brunt of the ongoing refugee crises by breaking an agreement in which Turkey readmits thousands of immigrants who pass through Turkey before entering Greece. "If Europe continues this way, no European in any part of the world can walk safely on the streets," he said Sunday.
Tillerson's team has kept a low profile in the fight between Erdogan and European leaders. "We want to see everyone get along and to tone down the rhetoric," acting State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters Wednesday.
Even if Tillerson doesn't make peace between the NATO allies, his trip to Brussels could help reassure allies who were troubled by his initial decision to skip the April NATO meeting, which coincides with Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to the United States. "The United States remains 100 percent committed to NATO," Toner said Tuesday. "President Trump said this in his very first address to a joint session of Congress. He said our commitment to NATO is unwavering and it remains so."