Raising the Standard at UGA since 2013.

Secretary of Debate

Are Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson’s fossil-fueled, Russian ties too close?

With ‘The Donald’ officially set to take office next month, public discourse has (with the exception of a few rogue tweets) inevitably shifted toward the staffing of the White House he will soon inhabit. In comparison to previous years, his new team represents no standard changing of the guard. Yes, most of his Cabinet picks backed him with political and financial support through his campaign, but this practice is nothing new. And no, his new team does not possess much political experience; even those with a political background have records of disaffection with the agencies they have been tapped to head. Then again, taking a hammer to the status-quo in Washington was undoubtedly at the forefront of the President-Elect’s campaign. In this way he has stuck to his platform, a commendable accomplishment for a man whom the United States elected in such a firestorm. These two criticisms, that there are too many big donors in Trump’s Cabinet-to-be and that they have too little political experience, have dominated much of the left’s recent rhetoric. At least one nomination, though, breaks from the both of these criticisms.

Secretary of State nominee and ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, though a frequent donor to Republican Presidential candidates in the past, has no record of donations to Trump’s campaign.

His flashy title tends to lead critics to label him as yet another inexperienced billionaire ready to indulge in a piece of the executive branch’s power. The latter part of the criticism may hold true, but Tillerson is experienced.

As CEO of ExxonMobil, Tillerson has successfully dealt with a slew of foreign leaders who otherwise have little good to say about the United States such as Russia and Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia. Because of this, he is already a step ahead when the first round of negotiations come his way. In the same way that someone with knowledge, a deep understanding, and a benevolent relationship with a host country makes a good ambassador, a person who has knowledge, experience, and respect about and around the world is ideal for any Secretary of State, a position that necessitates relationships with foreign leaders. Mr. Tillerson’s effective negotiation and diplomacy skills were surely a key factor in President-Elect Trump’s decision.

Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass, however, correctly notes that “There’s some difference between knowing about the world and knowing about foreign policy.” Certainly, but Mr. Tillerson does have this aspect covered as well.

For over a decade, Trump’s Secretary of State nominee has served on the board of trustees at the Center for Strategic & International Studies think tank (CSIS). CSIS is a world-renowned think tank that is (according to a University of Pennsylvania study) the top defense and national security think tank, the fifth best for foreign policy and international affairs, and the third best overall think tank in the United States. Moreover, it is widely regarded as a centrist organization, a categorization that echoes recommendations from former Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and James Baker, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and President of CSIS John Hamre.

“He’s not an ideological man,” said Hamre to POLITICO, “he brings an engineer’s precision in thinking about the dimensions of a problem. He wants to understand all the players, all the factors.” Moreover, Hamre, who appeared confident in Tillerson’s appointment in a segment with PBS NewsHour, says he has spent “more than 100 hours” discussing foreign policy with the ExxonMobil executive.

Unfortunately, Tillerson’s ties to the renowned foreign policy think tank have received little to no coverage. The mainstream media confusingly overlooks the important resume bullet point, preferring to insult the nominee as yet another populist Cabinet selection who will need to justify his “lack of formal foreign policy experience” (CNN) to the Senate at his confirmation hearing. In fact, ABC News, The Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN, and even (disappointingly) NPR failed to recognize Tillerson’s outstanding resume booster, unsurprisingly focusing rather on his relationship with Russia and what it could mean for climate change that a “fossil fuel tycoon” be nominated. To those points, the negatives have expectedly been all-too exhausted and in some cases outright sensationalized.

How Problematic Are tillerson’s Russian Ties?


From right to left: Tillerson, Putin, and Paul Johnson

The harshest and probably most legitimate concern with Mr. Tillerson’s appointment is of his cozy relationship with Russia and Vladimir Putin. However in a speech to the University of Texas, his alma mater, Tillerson noted: “I don’t agree with everything he’s doing. I don’t agree with everything a lot of leaders are doing.” As aforementioned, supporters of the nomination as well as Tillerson himself refer to his warm relationship with the Kremlin as being purely business and point to his temperament commendable.  

Naturally so, it is still reasonable to criticize the partnership and forecast the negative effect his conflict of interest may have should the Senate confirm his appointment. The fact that ExxonMobil’s business interests and the interests of the United States are easily distinguishable should make the situation relatively transparent, and that should show with any of Tillerson’s actions as Secretary of State.

His relationship with the Kremlin, even if too close for comfort, will be monitored under a microscope by Republicans (Senators Marco Rubio, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham have expressed concern) perhaps even more so than Democrats. Debate over the only reachable policy change that would benefit ExxonMobil, the lifting of sanctions put on Russia for their breach of Ukrainian sovereignty last year, will undoubtedly be the decision of either the President or the Congress. In the end there is less to worry about here at second glance.

Half-deserved Criticism on Climate Change

ExxonMobil naturally receives its fair share of climate change blame.

As for climate change, there is no doubt reason to fret that the Secretary of State, the person in charge of some facet of climate change as the representative of the United States in climate talks and as the indirect head of the Office of Global Change, is so heavily involved in the fossil fuel industry.

However, while Trump and EPA head Scott Pruitt have essentially denied anthropogenic climate change, Tillerson acknowledges it and even said in a speech last May that “the risks of climate change are serious and warrant thoughtful action.” He is a proponent of the carbon tax and the furthering of research on how to curb carbon emissions with as little harm to the market as possible. Furthermore, as he became CEO in 2006, Tillerson pledged to end what became a sort of dark tradition at ExxonMobil by de-funding climate change skeptic organizations forthright.  

While his statements in no way guarantee progress on the climate change front, they are certainly nothing about which to complain (relatively speaking). Furthermore, the Secretary of State’s duties consist mainly of advising the President on foreign policy, negotiating treaties, and representing the United States in diplomatic situations, not dictating climate change policy. Though he will likely represent the United States at next year’s UN Climate Change Summit, the Secretary of State communicates the President’s initiatives and not his own. However, most Secretaries of State are appointed due to their similar views to the President, so perhaps we will see some friction between Tillerson and Trump if either of them truly believe what they say. Perhaps climate change critics will have a small sliver of concession in a four years that does not look to be kind to the earth; Tillerson is more likely than some to offer that concession.

So . . . Are Tillerson’s fossil-fueled, Russian ties too close to serve as the country’s next Secretary of State? To be brief, no. They at least should not be disqualifying. Outside of talks of lifting sanctions on Russia, a topic which Congress will no doubt deal with themselves anyway, Tillerson seems to be somewhat of a surprisingly good fit. It is after all, of course, the Senate’s answer to that question that matters most, but the way Trump’s Cabinet is looking thus far, critics should focus their attentions elsewhere; Tillerson has an impressive resume.  

Stay tuned for more articles reviewing President-Elect Trump’s Cabinet appointments in the weeks to come.


— Nick Geeslin is Editor-in-Chief of the THE ARCH CONSERVATIVE.

(Like what you see? Support THE ARCH CONSERVATIVE!)