There are reasons to be concerned over Donald Trump’s selection of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson for secretary of State, but they’re 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 you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone familiar with Exxon who doesn’t 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 Tillerson’s case, it’s 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 criticism—that Tillerson is personally close to Putin and that dealing successfully in Russia suggests some sort of moral failing or absence of patriotism—is 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 given—one need only look to BP’s troubled Russian joint venture TNK-BP, which it divested in 2013, for evidence of that. Succeeding is not an indication you’ve 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 doesn’t mean it’s 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 action—but it’s 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. “It’s maximizing profit. You have to do that or you can’t survive. The goal is a given. When a national-security problem arises, the hardest thing to do—the great strategic challenge—is deciding what the goal is.”
It’s equally relevant to Tillerson, which isn’t to say that he isn’t up to that challenge, only that his ability in this respect is unknown. We simply don’t know how he will function with a broader and far more complex set of responsibilities. And because he isn’t a public figure, we also have a very limited understanding of where he stands on the array of significant threats and policy challenges that he’ll face on Day One.
One major question is how well or how long he’ll be able to stomach Trump’s leadership style. Rex Tillerson is used to being in charge. He runs a massive, but exceptionally orderly business and isn’t 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 Trump’s 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 he’s 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.