What does it mean when the man chosen to run the State Department has no experience in government but ample experience doing business with dictators of every stripe? Ever since ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson was picked by Donald Trump to be the country’s top diplomat, critics have focused on his work in Russia—and his close relationship to members of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, including Rosneft chief Igor Sechin, at times in open defiance of sanctions. These ties also took up much of the questioning during Tillerson’s confirmation hearing Wednesday.
As it happens, though, Putin and Sechin are far from the only strongmen that Tillerson has dealt with in the course of his career. He has spent much of his professional life schmoozing with characters ranging from the Al-Thani dynasty of Qatar to the notoriously brutal dictator of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang. Under Tillerson’s leadership, it turns out, an Exxon subsidiary even did business with Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Omar al-Bashir’s Sudan—at times when all three countries were under sanctions as state sponsors of terrorism. As Senator Chris Murphy asked him on Wednesday, “Was there any country in the world whose record of civil rights was so horrible or whose conduct so directly threatened global security…that Exxon wouldn’t do business with it?” (To which Tillerson answered, basically, as long as it wasn’t outright illegal, Exxon would be open to it.)
This reflects a politically salient fact about the energy business: a disproportionate amount of the world’s oil and natural gas lies under territory controlled by autocrats. (This, indeed, may not be a coincidence. Some political scientists have argued that natural resource wealth in a country tends to favor the rise of authoritarian leaders.) In the early 2000s, Obiang deposited well over half a billion dollars into accounts at Riggs Bank in Washington, D.C., ultimately prompting a US Senate investigation that faulted Equatorial Guinea for violation of money laundering regulations. A large chunk of those funds was ultimately determined to have come from payments made to the country by Exxon.
In 2007, Tillerson gained the respect of industry insiders by standing up to the Hugo Chávez regime in Venezuela, when it decided to revise existing contracts with US oil companies. Thanks to Exxon’s tough stance, it was widely regarded to have emerged from the confrontation on the most favorable terms of any of the companies involved. In Northern Iraq, meanwhile, Tillerson gained important oil concessions for Exxon by dealing directly with Kurdish officials, to the consternation of US policy makers, who regarded such moves as a direct challenge to Washington’s insistence that the Baghdad government was the only legitimate point of contact for American businesses in Iraq.
Tillerson joined Exxon straight out of the University of Texas back in 1975, and it’s the only company he’s ever worked for. Steadily working his way up in an organization notorious for its number-driven, strictly-by-the-books corporate culture, he finally got the top job in 2006. In his defense, though, Tillerson does not entirely fit the stereotype of the ultraconservative Texas oilman. An enthusiastic sponsor of the Boy Scouts, he was instrumental in the decision to open up the organization to gays. He served as a director of the United Negro College Fund. He made a crucial decision to reverse his company’s long-standing denial of climate change and has explicitly expressed his support for the Paris Agreement—a position that, interestingly, puts him in direct opposition with the president-elect. Tillerson supported Jeb Bush during the primaries, and in his public speeches he has tended to favor middle-of-the-road Republican positions on trade and regulation: he seems unlikely to support, say, a trade war with China or Mexico.
But there are two interesting cases where his views appear to coincide quite well with Trump’s. Most ominously, Tillerson has spoken out against the sanctions imposed on Russia by the US and the European Union in the wake of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine in 2014—and openly flouted a restriction on US business activity in Russia by attending an investment forum in St. Petersburg last summer. Tillerson has also spoken out against China’s recent military expansion in the South China Sea, a point he was set to reiterate in his confirmation hearing.
Together these two positions would seem to align him with Trump’s hinted preference for a Washington-Moscow alliance aimed at fighting terrorism and containing Beijing. But we don’t really know this for sure—precisely because Tillerson has never been a public politician. Tillerson’s oft-declared priority of doing “what’s good for the shareholders” could help to explain both stances: Exxon Mobil has lost some $1 billion from the sanctions against Russia, and China’s aggressiveness in the waters off Southeast Asia potentially complicates the company’s oil-exploration partnership with Vietnam.
Will Tillerson’s positions change now that he has to defend broad US interests rather than narrow business goals? There is, indeed, far more about Tillerson’s politics that we don’t actually know. We have no idea what he thinks about Brexit, or the European Union, or the intricacies of Mideast peace negotiations—perhaps because those issues have little bearing on Exxon Mobil’s bottom line.
Given what we know so far, it is possible to imagine two possible directions Tillerson’s tenure as secretary of state could take. In the more hopeful one, a lifetime of no-nonsense negotiation with various autocrats enables him to push back strongly when needed, just as he has done in the past to protect the interests of Exxon. Now he could use this experience to defend broad US aims and interests, including the advancement of free trade and freedom of the seas, the maintenance of traditional military alliances, and the defense of democratic values. This is the kind of man Tillerson aimed to show the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday. In his testimony, Tillerson tried to sound robust on Russia, saying it has “disregarded American interests,” and he promised to hold countries like Russia, China, and Iran to “account” even as we “deal” with them. He even talked about sanctions as effective “instruments of foreign policy” in certain circumstances, though he skirted specific questions about sanctions against Russia.
To use Trumpian language, this Tillerson could always be relied upon “to get the best deal” for the US, no matter how tough his opponents. And in a world increasingly run by authoritarian leaders (not only in Russia but even in ostensible US allies such as Turkey, Poland, Hungary, and Thailand), one could conceivably argue that it’s good that our top diplomat is someone who knows how to talk to them in terms they’ll understand. (One could easily envision a further irony: because of his unusual past, such leaders might be more inclined to see him as a center of power in his own right, like Sechin, rather than simply the head of a bureaucracy that has to answer to an unruly Congress and may actually have limited or no ability to enforce or implement any deals that are reached.)
The problem with this view, of course, is that Trump himself has repeatedly made it clear that he has little interest in defending human rights, liberal societies, or even America’s long-established partnerships with its friends. Nor has Tillerson said much about defending bedrock democratic values. He did not use the word “democracy” once in his opening statement to the Foreign Relations Committee; indeed he rarely used it during five hours of testimony. Confronted with questions by Senator Marc Rubio about Russia’s human rights record, and specifically the nasty tendency of opponents of Vladimir Putin to get killed, he seemed oddly unmoved:
Rubio: “Are you aware that people who oppose Vladimir Putin wind up dead all over the world, poisoned, shot in the back of the head…?”
Tillerson: “People who speak up for freedom in regimes that are repressive…these things happen to them.”
So it becomes all too easy to imagine another future, one in which the new president simply opts to subordinate US foreign policy to winning another “war on terror,” or to a new alliance against China, or to building more nuclear weapons, or to reducing the amount of money the US spends on its NATO allies, or other hard-edged priorities—no matter the consequences for freedom in the world. Judging purely by his career, Tillerson would seem the perfect person to promote such a policy. Indeed, it would be hard to expect anything else from a man who is proud to cite his friendship with Vladimir Putin.
Christian Caryl is an editor at The Washington Post‘s Global Opinion section. (January 2017)