After several weeks of speculation, US President-elect Donald Trump nominated Rex Tillerson, chief executive of energy conglomerate ExxonMobil, to be his secretary of state. The selection generated lively debate among Washington political pundits almost immediately after it became official.
Some observers initially expressed reservations about Tillerson’s dearth of government experience. However, a number of prominent former and current officials — including former Secretaries of State James Baker and Condoleezza Rice, and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates — have endorsed the nomination.
While some of Tillerson’s supporters commend some of his personal attributes, others have made a compelling case that his vast corporate experience leading one of the world’s biggest multinational corporations will prove a great asset if he is confirmed by Congress.
For his part, Trump described Tillerson as the “embodiment of the American Dream,” and lauded his “tenacity, broad experience and deep understanding of geopolitics,” in a statement announcing the nomination.
Tillerson might not have been a household name the way some other potential nominees for secretary of state were, such as former New York City Mayor Rudi Giuliani or former CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus.
However, there is little doubt that the company Tillerson has led is arguably the best-known energy corporation in the world. His supporters have argued that Exxon’s revenues surpass the gross national product of many nations. The company employs 75,000 people worldwide, and is well regarded for the way it has been managed. That by itself, argue those who have endorsed Tillerson, make him a seasoned administrator.
ExxonMobil is familiar to many in oil-producing countries, including Saudi Arabia. Its history in the Kingdom can be traced back to 1927. Today, it has several joint ventures with Saudi Aramco and SABIC. ExxonMobil also has significant development projects in Qatar, Russia and 20 other nations worldwide.
As CEO of the company over the past 10 years, and over the course of his 40-year career, Tillerson has no doubt become intimately familiar with the global nature of modern economies as well as energy markets. It is safe to assume that he has amassed impressive knowledge about investment and business environments in many countries worldwide, and has a firm grasp of their economic needs.
Understanding regulatory frameworks and navigating trade barriers will furnish him with the experience required to find common ground between adversaries, and the patience necessary to negotiate what are often tortuous political settlements. Given his long career with an international energy company, it is also fair to assume that Tillerson has an appreciation for intercultural understanding and for reaching mutually beneficial arrangements.
For example, it is clear that he is a firm believer in the value of free trade. During a speaking engagement in 2015 at the World Glass Conference, he said: “History is clear and unequivocal: Free trade lifts the prospects of nations and improves the lives of people across borders, regions and oceans.”
It is also apparent that Tillerson understands the intersection between politics, economics and culture, and does not see international trade and investment in zero-sum terms. At a recent event, he was quoted as saying: “Any steps we (ExxonMobil) take to develop new resources, to promote trading relationships, to promote stability in countries, from a socioeconomic, geopolitical perspective, that is all in the US national interest.”
Although Tillerson’s position as the top US diplomat does not entail implementing energy policy, oil-exporting countries such as Saudi Arabia and other member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) might take some comfort in the fact that he does not appear to believe in the notion of energy independence.
Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in 2012, Tillerson said: “Energy independence and energy security are really two different things. What US policy and what’s in the best interest of American consumers has been and should be is securing access to energy in a reliable, relatively affordable way. If we’re able to do that, where it comes from should be of little consequence to us… If you don’t like the people you’re buying it from, that’s a different issue.”
At the same time, Tillerson appears to be cognizant of the legitimate concerns about environmental degradation related to energy production and consumption. In this regard he has said: “I view global warming and climate change as a serious risk, and I’m in the risk-management business. It’s clear that there’s an impact. What’s not clear is our ability to measure with a great degree of accuracy or certainty exactly how large that impact will be.”
Tillerson is not a career diplomat or a long-serving member of Congress. However, the vast corporate experience he brings to the position of secretary of state has furnished him with a bird’s-eye view of the interconnected but often competitive global economy we live in. Skills such as minimizing risk and capitalizing on opportunities apply to geopolitics as much as they do economics. Tillerson will likely prove many naysayers wrong.
• Fahad Nazer is an international affairs fellow with the National Council on US-Arab Relations. He is also a consultant to the Saudi embassy in Washington, but does not represent it or speak on its behalf. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, CNN, The Hill and Newsweek, among others.