Rex Tillerson shuns spotlight at landmark G-20 meeting

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attends the G-20 Foreign Ministers Meeting, Feb 16, 2017, in Bonn, Germany.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attends the G-20 Foreign Ministers Meeting, Feb 16, 2017, in Bonn, Germany.PHOTO: AFP

BONN (AFP) - A Group of 20 (G-20) gathering in Bonn was supposed to herald onto the world stage Washington's new top diplomat, Rex Tillerson, but instead he kept a low profile and even left without the normally de rigueur press conference.

The contrast with his predecessor John Kerry could not be more marked.

The one was an inveterate traveller, ready to talk and answer any questions at nearly any time while Tillerson, the hugely successful head of US oil giant ExxonMobil, appears content to convey his message out of the media limelight.

"Where is Rex Tillerson? Top envoy keeps head down and travels light," a New York Times headline asked during the two-day Bonn G-20 foreign ministers' meeting where hundreds of journalists milled around waiting for news.

"Tillerson remains silent on US foreign policy," said top German daily the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

US President Donald Trump sent Tillerson, Defence Secretary James Mattis and Vice-President Mike Pence to Europe this week in a major diplomatic offensive to explain what his "America First" policy really means for a world wanting to know.

But the Secretary of State had hardly anything to say to the press and his officials issued only short statements after meetings with his peers in the G-20 grouping of the world's top developed and developing economies.

"They never give up," Tillerson was heard to tell British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, referring to journalists hoping for a punchy statement on the state of the world before the two men met.

On the flight to Bonn from Washington, the Secretary took only a few journalists along with him and then hardly talked to them, according to their accounts.

But Tillerson is his own man, building a reputation at ExxonMobil for nailing down major deals, especially in Russia where President Vladimir Putin personally decorated him with the Order of Friendship.

His G-20 peers also appeared to be struggling as they attempted to get him to spell out clearly what Trump wants after throwing out the accepted US international game plan.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said after meeting Tillerson that the US position on the Israel-Palestinian conflict came across as "confused" while comments about the Iran nuclear deal raised questions.

"There needs to be more precision on many issues; for the moment, it is all very general," Ayrault said.

The FAZ said Tillerson's reticence might reflect caution about getting caught out of step with Trump and the many, sometimes contradictory positions taken by the President.

"For Western diplomats, the reason behind his cautious approach is clear - his credibility would be wiped out quickly if he had to adjust positions all the time to match the latest line from the White House," the newspaper said.

That leaves some wondering where the balance of power lies in the new US administration - is Tillerson really Trump's point man on foreign policy?

"Trying to work out the pecking order in the current US administration is like the Kreminology needed (to decipher what was happening in Moscow) in the days of the Soviet Union," one European diplomat joked.

Asked what he had got out of the G-20 event, Tillerson kept it typically brief.

"Met a lot of people, made a lot of new friends," he replied.