Can you not quite put your finger on why having the world’s biggest oil CEO as America’s secretary of State might be a problem? OK then, that’s why I’m here!
1. Rex Tillerson has been running a global quasi-state for a decade and has dedicated pretty much his entire adult life to that quasi-state (he’s worked at ExxonMobil since 1975). As such, he has, it is fair for us to assume, a world view centered on the world’s provable and exploitable fossil-fuel resources. As ExxonMobil chief executive, he has had the responsibility of trying to exploit those. He knows where they all are, how hard they are to get to, who owns them (if anyone), what they’re worth.
Here’s a list of countries by proven oil reserves. Think Tillerson doesn’t know this list cold? How will 40 years spent thinking about the world through this prism influence his, er, diplomacy? He can sell his stock (which I hope and assume we’re hoping and assuming). But he can’t erase his memory banks any more than Donald Trump can suddenly forget which countries he’s doing deals in. Which countries are ExxonMobil doing deals in? ExxonMobil has partnered with PetroVietnam to drill in the disputed South China Sea. What’s Exxon’s business exposure in China? Is anyone seriously contending that a Secretary Tillerson can instantly set all these concerns, all these learned habits, aside?
Two main points here. First, Exxon’s interests are Exxon’s, not the United States of America’s. Sometimes they’ve aligned, but sometimes they have not. But second and more important, is the vantage point of a fossil-fuel extractor really the vantage point that we want to privilege in the role of the world’s most important diplomat?
2. This brings us specifically to Exxon’s and Tillerson’s Russian ties, which you’ll be reading a lot about in the next few days and which is what Democrats will likely pounce on in confirmation hearings. It’s not some general vague notion. Tillerson, according to this article, came up through the ranks in Exxon managing the Russia account! It’s next to impossible that Trump didn’t know this, and it seems reasonable to conclude then that Trump chose Tillerson not in spite of his deep Russia ties, but precisely because of them.
Tillerson cut a huge deal in 2011 with the Russian oil company Rosneft. Putin himself was at the ceremony. The men have known each other for years. How will this affect Secretary Tillerson’s view of Ukraine, the Baltic states, NATO? It’s mind-boggling.
3. Climate change has been a major State Department issue for years now. As Cathleen Kelly wrote this year for the journal I edit, Democracy, the State Department has moved on a range of fronts to recognize climate change not just as an environmental issue but as an issue of first-order diplomatic and strategic importance as climate shifts result in population flows and agricultural changes and all kinds of things.
Tillerson, though, is a climate-change denier in the general sense. As CEO, he did soften Exxon’s image in that department, coming out in favor of a carbon tax (although he had the safety of knowing that such a proposal wasn’t going anywhere). But Exxon spent years spearheading a public campaign denying a human role in climate change.
ExxonMobil employs 1,600 scientists and engineers. They know the science. They spend their days calculating things like the environmental costs of extraction. But would Secretary Tillerson try to sit down with his president and explain them, or would he just go along? Hint: See point 1, about 40 years’ worth of mental training.
4. There’s a hell of a lot of other stuff the secretary of State has to do. Let’s start with Israel and Palestine. What sort of grasp of Israeli politics does Tillerson have? Any? And the internecine battles within the Palestinian world?
Syria? Factions upon factions upon factions! The history of the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The roles played by the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah and their histories. Does Tillerson know anything about any of this beyond the broad headlines? And that’s just one region of the world. There are several others, you know.
Then there are the issues that the State Department works on that go beyond state relationships. Potable water. Does he have a handle on that? The subjugation of women. Slavery and peonage. Malaria and other diseases. What’s he going to prioritize, and what’s he going to propose to do about those matters?
My point isn’t that he ought to be able to fix all these things. It’s that a normal pick would know a little something about all these matters, and have a sense of who to get on the phone when a crisis erupts somewhere. Tillerson will be learning on the job literally every day for his entire tenure, however long it lasts.
Except, that is, about fossil fuels and Russia. Those are the two things he knows upside down. And it’s not very likely that that’s an accident. A global energy CEO would have been a totally unacceptable choice 20 or 30 years ago. No, even a decade ago—Dubya would have seen that this was just too brazen, and he probably would have realized that he should have someone with some relevant experience (and indeed, comparatively speaking his two secretary of state choices weren’t horrible).
But now it’s happening. And the thing is—it’s hardly even the most shocking of Trump’s Cabinet picks.