The man tapped to be secretary of State is a titan of industry and a man of the world. Will he bend to Trumps will on critical issues, or will Trump bend to his?”>
There are reasons to be concerned over Donald Trumps selection of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson for secretary of State, but theyre not the ones that have everyone up in arms.
Those who have worked closely with him describe him as exceptionally intelligent, effective, and disciplined. And youd be hard-pressed to find anyone familiar with Exxon who doesnt have a great deal of respect for how well the business is run. One can disagree with its stance on a range issues (which I do) and still appreciate the professionalism and competency with which it operates around the world.
As Brookings scholar Suzanne Maloney, who served both at the State Department and Exxon, puts it, Anyone who manages multibillion-dollar, multidecade projects needs deep, nuanced understanding of political context.
It makes no sense to treat experience at the highest levels of the private sector as a disqualification for government service. Tillerson will have to sell all his holdings in ExxonMobil to comply with conflict-of-interest regulations, just as Hank Paulson did when he left the helm of Goldman Sachs in 2006 to become Treasury secretary. Trump has confused the public on this issue by asserting that the president does not need to follow the same ethical rules as his Cabinet members regarding conflict of interest. But in Tillersons case, its clear: ExxonMobil (and other oil majors) would benefit from lifting sanctions on Russia, but Tillerson can have no financial interest in that outcome.
The further criticismthat Tillerson is personally close to Putin and that dealing successfully in Russia suggests some sort of moral failing or absence of patriotismis equally groundless. Most oil majors are active in Russia, just as they are active in the Middle East and other challenging environments. Being able to work effectively and profitably is not a givenone need only look to BPs troubled Russian joint venture TNK-BP, which it divested in 2013, for evidence of that. Succeeding is not an indication youve been taken in by Putin or his cronies. Indeed, the opposite may be true.
Finally, ExxonMobil has, even among big bad oil companies, a terrible reputation when it comes to addressing climate change. I almost fell out of my chair at an Economic Club of Washington dinner when Tillerson stated matter-of-factly that while climate change was caused by human activity, that doesnt mean its worth hurting our economy to mitigate it.
So, environmentalists are right to worry that he is unlikely to continue vital U.S. leadership on global climate actionbut its significant that he accepts the science and has voiced his support for remaining in the Paris agreement. As the choice of a president-elect who has claimed climate change is a hoax and whose selection for the Environmental Protection Agency is suing it over the clean-power plan, Tillerson is a refreshingly sensible choice.
One of the most relevant takes on the challenges our president-elect will face in managing U.S. security policy came out of a conversation with Douglas Feith, who was an undersecretary of defense in the George W. Bush administration and now is a scholar at the Hudson Institute.
Businessmen are operating in a system or game where the goal is set in advance, said Feith. Its maximizing profit. You have to do that or you cant survive. The goal is a given. When a national-security problem arises, the hardest thing to dothe great strategic challengeis deciding what the goal is.
Its equally relevant to Tillerson, which isnt to say that he isnt up to that challenge, only that his ability in this respect is unknown. We simply dont know how he will function with a broader and far more complex set of responsibilities. And because he isnt a public figure, we also have a very limited understanding of where he stands on the array of significant threats and policy challenges that hell face on Day One.
One major question is how well or how long hell be able to stomach Trumps leadership style. Rex Tillerson is used to being in charge. He runs a massive, but exceptionally orderly business and isnt known for suffering fools. Will Trump defer to his judgments? Will Trump even listen to them? And will Tillerson be able to tolerate and manage the lack of discipline that has characterized Trumps performance on the global stage since the election? Those are some of the great unknowables going forward.
For now, the confirmation process should help shed light on the Russian and climate questions that have dominated the press, and also give us some idea what hes learned, and how he feels, about policy in the rest of the world. He should be vigorously vetted.
But targeting Tillerson by trying to connect him to the broader, and deeply troubling story unfolding about Russian involvement in the U.S. election and Russian ties to the Trump team would be a mistake. Particularly when that political ammunition should be saved for truly offensive choices seemingly selected to dismantle the agencies they will run.