How Tillerson can turn it around

Ed Joseph, my colleague at the Johns Hopkins School of Advance International Studies, writes: 

Can Rex Tillerson save his job?  Even after his striking, defiant statement last week, reaffirming his loyalty to Donald Trump, the odds are against him.  He committed the cardinal sin of publicly distancing himself from his boss (over Charlottesville).  The President has repeatedly needled and undermined his Secretary of State in tweets.  Aside from his travails with the White House, even Tillerson’s admirers have criticized his weak, rudderless performance at Foggy Bottom.

Though time is running short, it’s not too late for Tillerson to turn it around.  To do so, he needs a clear, unadulterated victory – a smaller, more modest version of what Dick Holbrooke got at Dayton or what Madeline Albright achieved in Kosovo.  As long as Tillerson cedes the credit to his boss, all will be forgiven (though not forgotten) provided he brings the Administration a triumph – particularly one that allows Trump to claim he prevailed where his predecessors failed.

And there is one international dispute tailor-made for Tillerson’s keen attention – an issue that has defied the efforts of prior Administrations, that confounds major European capitals, and that can be resolved swiftly, provided Tillerson is willing to expend political capital and take some risk: Greece’s longstanding objection to Macedonia’s name.

Since Macedonia’s independence in 1991, Greece has insisted that its northern neighbor’s name, ‘Macedonia’, is infringement upon Greek patrimony (stemming from Alexander the Great), and an affront to the Greek region which carries the same name.  Athens imposed a punishing embargo on its fledgling neighbor for three years after independence.  In 1995, the legendary Holbrooke negotiated an end to the blockade and extracted Athens’ formal commitment not to block Skopje’s membership in international organizations — provided Macedonia entered under its temporary name ‘former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.’

But in 2008, Greece blocked Macedonia’s entry into NATO as ‘fYROM.’  In 2011, the International Court of Justice ruled (by a fifteen to one majority) that, by doing so, Athens had violated its obligations.  Greece has ignored the ruling.  Macedonia – which has been willing to join NATO under its temporary name — remains marooned in the southern Balkans.  Without a NATO or EU perspective, the country is left weakened and prone to crisis.  A violent conflict that would draw in its neighbors is a clear possibility, particularly now that Russia is engaged in the country and poised to exert malign influence.

In short, solving the name dispute is a significant US interest.  However, no envoy since Holbrooke has managed to make any progress on the question.  George W. Bush and his State Department tried, and failed, to get Macedonia into NATO at the Alliance Summit in Bucharest in 2008.  The Obama Administration ignored the issue, largely consigning the entire Balkans to indifferent Europeans who likewise failed to make any effort to resolve the name dispute.

Fortunately for Tillerson, circumstances are as favorable as they’ve ever been for a breakthrough.  Both Greece and Macedonia are emerging from exhausting, multi-year crises that have sapped their countries’ respective appetite for drama.  Neither country’s Prime Minister – Alexis Tsipras in Athens or Zoran Zaev in Skopje – is facing elections just yet.  And while both leaders must inevitably cast a wary eye on the opposition, their real focus is on achieving the demonstrable progress needed to stay in office.  What’s more, relations between the two capitals have improved.  The Greek and Macedonian foreign ministers recently and cordially discussed the name issue — a clear sign the matter is potentially ripe for resolution.

The key to a deal is Greece, by far the more powerful party.  Skopje has the law and international opinion on its side; otherwise, it is small, weak and the only side suffering from the dispute.

Thankfully, Washington has leverage over Athens.  After three searing international bailouts obtained at the price of draconian reforms, Tsipras is desperate to rid Greece of the harsh financial supervision that has been imposed at the behest of its nemesis, Germany.  However, the just-completed German elections have complicated that aspiration.  Disappointing results for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party mean that she is now likely to bring hardliners into her government who adamantly oppose relaxing conditions on Greece.

Effectively, Washington has become a key player in this Greek drama.  There is no chance for Greek debt relief unless Washington maintains its current level of funding to the IMF — something the Administration has yet to confirm. At the same time, Tsipras also wants a ‘Strategic Partnership’ with the US as another sign that the country has paid its dues, implemented difficult reforms and now deserves to be treated with respect.  All this makes Tsipras desperate for a full-fledged summit with Trump this year, a topic already raised with Washington last month.

Tillerson needs only to convince his boss, Trump, author of ‘The Art of the Deal’, to exploit his leverage and insist on full resolution of the Greece-Macedonia name dispute as the price for the meeting and terms that Tsipras seeks.  Tillerson should make it clear that the credit will rest with the President, while Tillerson does the heavy lifting.

And there is every reason to believe that Tillerson can succeed, as long he learns from the mistakes of his predecessors:

o   Bush and his State Department failed to exploit the deadline of the 2008 NATO Bucharest Summit.  Tillerson can make it clear to Greece and Macedonia that ‘this is it’, i.e. that this issue will be resolved by the end of this year, full stop.

o   Bush’s envoys failed to threaten Athens and Skopje with any credible penalties.  Tillerson must make it clear to Athens that if it balks, Tsipras gets no meeting – and Washington will make Macedonian membership in NATO a core Administration priority, while giving Skopje privileged standing with Washington.  If tiny Skopje dares try to take advantage of the situation, then the Secretary must threaten vulnerable Zaev with publicly naming and shaming him for screwing up Macedonia’s best chance to end its isolation.

o   Tillerson should consult with the long-time UN negotiator on the issue, Matthew Nimetz, but make it clear that after more than two-decades, it’s time to bring the matter to a close.  As long as Tillerson is personally invested – and agrees to meet with the parties personally –coordination will be easy.  Nimetz will share the full range of solutions available to resolve the entire matter; Tillerson needs only to select one and sell it to the parties.

o  Most of all, Tillerson should ignore the US Ambassador to Athens, or any former US Ambassador to Athens, or Greek officials or others who plead that that “this is not the time to press for a solution.”  That attitude is precisely the reason this problem has festered for so long.

After a career in the oil business, few know better than Rex Tillerson that taking calculated risk can bring handsome rewards.  To save himself from a humiliating return to Houston, it’s time for the Secretary to take some risk in the pursuit of a worthy, and plausible, objective.

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