Diplomacy is a subtle art, which is why it is often over-interpreted. Reports on Monday that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will visit Russia in April but not attend a meeting of NATO foreign ministers earlier in the month are being lumped together as a sign that the Trump administration is courting Russia and rejecting its European allies—a sign that comes just after the FBI director confirmed an investigation into possible connections between the Trump campaign and the Russian government during the 2016 election. But the story is more complicated than the headlines suggest: According to Reuters, Tillerson may be skipping the NATO gathering in order to attend a summit that same week with the Chinese president in the United States, and he’ll be discussing the military campaign against ISIS with his counterparts in NATO countries during a conference in Washington, D.C. this week.
Still, the scheduling details do offer a window into Donald Trump’s approach so far to foreign policy. What the news appears to signal, as Reuters has noted, is that the president is prioritizing America’s dealings with big powers like Russia and China over its security commitments to smaller nations. This emphasis on big-power dealmaking, along with the Trump administration’s promotion of nationalism, skepticism of free trade, criticism of traditional U.S. allies, and focus on terrorism at the expense of other threats have contributed to a new, consequential dynamic in international affairs: the slow-motion fraying of U.S.-European relations.