A G20 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.
Kerry was an inveterate traveler, ready to talk and answer any questions at nearly any time, while Tillerson, the hugely successful head of American 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 G20 foreign ministers’ meeting where hundreds of journalists had gathered.
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 G20 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.
Tillerson built a reputation at ExxonMobil for nailing down major deals, especially in Russia.
His G20 peers also appeared to be struggling as they attempted to get him to spell out clearly what Trump wants.
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.
Asked what he had got out of the G20 event, Tillerson kept it typically brief. “Met a lot of people, made a lot of new friends,” he replied.