The news that Rex Tillerson, Exxon’s CEO, is Donald Trump’s official pick for the Secretary of State chair has sparked an outrage among Democratic and Republican legislators alike, both sides worried that his appointment would further warm relations between the U.S. and Russia.
To an outsider with a limited understanding of geopolitical dynamics, this outrage would sound absurd. After all, what is wrong with good bilateral relations, especially those between two of the world’s nuclear powers? But to an insider of American – and Russian – politics, the outrage is an understandable knee-jerk reaction, brought about by years of anti-Russian sentiment across the West, after Moscow annexed the Crimea and sent troops to eastern Ukraine in support of pro-Russian insurgents, deepening the political chaos in Ukraine.
On top of that, the Kremlin is now facing accusations of organizing the email hacks that, according to the Clinton campaign, cost their candidate the election. Various media are quoting some unnamed CIA officials as “believing” the hack attack was aimed to tip the scales in favor of Trump, who is little more than a Kremlin mole in Washington. There is still no proof of any of these hacks (which is different than leaking emails), or the intent behind the hacks.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has not yet embraced the CIA assessment of the email hack, according to three other anonymous sources from the intelligence community. The reason: lack of conclusive evidence.
Smack in the middle of this scandal, Trump presents Rex Tillerson as his favorite for what’s probably the second most important position in the U.S. government. Tillerson, who was awarded by Russia’s President Putin the Order of Friendship, who has already lost a billion dollars from Western sanctions against Russia, and who has been against these sanctions from the beginning.
Let’s stop here. It’s not Tillerson personally who stands to lose billions from Russian sanctions—it’s the company he runs. Tillerson, in this respect, is just like any other big business leader who has operations in a country that is subjected to sanctions. CEOs are responsible for the general well-being of the company, and any measures that seek to strip the company of profits are bound to be protested vehemently. From this perspective, there is nothing sinister in Tillerson’s opposition to the anti-Russian sanctions. But can he wear another hat entirely?
As for his relationship with Putin, Tillerson is considered one of few friends of Russia in the United States. This relationship is being treated as a suspicious thing—a relationship that could compromise his loyalty to his country. But Tillerson’s loyalty lied with Exxon, not with Russia—Russia was but one of many foreign relationships that Tillerson forged with Exxon’s well-being in mind. This is precisely what has prompted most to label Tillerson as an astute businessman and company executive—someone who was able to keep Exxon in the black through the crisis while many competitors suffered, all the while maintaining dividend payouts.
This exemplary company record has been cited by many as a guarantee for his success as Secretary of State.
Yes, wearing the Exxon CEO hat, Tillerson negotiated lucrative deals for the company in Russia. In his capacity of a corporate CEO, Rex Tillerson negotiated deals that would bring in profits for Exxon. Unavoidably, these deals were also positive for Russia, as is the nature of such deals.
It is this mutual benefit that seems to be the basis of the anti-Tillerson opposition. Media are quoting Tillerson as agreeing with Putin that, “nothing strengthens relationships between countries better than business enterprise.” A mere universal truth, that is bringing short-sighted condemnation, especially when the statement is part of the protocol-required niceties for this kind of meeting.
Democrats seem convinced that Tillerson is a Putin spy. Republicans, who were against Obama’s first-term “reset” approach to bilateral relations with Russia, are still against it, and worry that Tillerson will make this reset happen.
Tillerson has a tough road ahead now that he has been named, but he has at least a couple of arguments in his favor. First, he can always state the obvious: that he was working in Russia on behalf of Exxon, and that he worked well, as the company’s bottom line shows. Second, he can argue from a solid base that the difference between running the largest energy company in the world and running the foreign policy of the world’s most powerful nation is basically a matter of scale—but with different objectives.
One further thing that could knock some sense into his most vehement opponents is the scrutiny he would be subjected to if his confirmation goes through. Should he be appointed Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson will have people watch his every single step. That’s certainly loyalty-enhancing, whatever his opponents say.