Tillerson's Experience, Worldview Come Under Scrutiny
As CEO of Exxon Mobil, Rex Tillerson has navigated the globe as an oil emissary, steering partnerships and policies toward cementing and expanding the reach of his corporation, one of the world’s largest. When that mission has put him and Exxon Mobil at odds with American objectives, Tillerson has emphasized that he represents only his company, not the U.S. government.
Now, as President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of state, Tillerson is poised to represent the United States and its interests to foreign leaders. But little is known about Tillerson’s own worldview and how it has been colored by his role shaping global energy policy — questions that promise to be at the center of congressional hearings as lawmakers weigh Tillerson’s nomination.
“When you’re the CEO of a corporation, your job is to advance the interest of the corporation and the shareholder,” said Eric Edelman, a former ambassador who also held posts in the defense and state departments, “and that might not be your same view when you are representing the United States.”
Edelman, who advised Mitt Romney during Romney’s 2012 presidential run, spoke for many in the foreign policy establishment when he wondered aloud whether Tillerson will be able to think outside the parameters that guided him at Exxon. “There are things that are troubling that need to be explored,” he said.
Tillerson’s close ties with Russia, in particular, have raised questions among some Republicans who are wary of warmer relations with President Vladimir Putin. Tillerson, an Exxon employee since he graduated from college, will likely also be made to address concerns regarding potential conflicts of interest with his former employer.
“The next secretary of state must be someone who views the world with moral clarity, is free of potential conflicts of interest, has a clear sense of America's interests, and will be a forceful advocate for America's foreign policy goals to the president, within the administration, and on the world stage,” Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, said in a statement Tuesday.
In a Wednesday speech to a nonprofit working on improving ties between the U.S. and China, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger was dismissive of the worry that Tillerson’s close relationship with Moscow is a red flag. “I pay no attention to the argument that he is too friendly to Russia,” Kissinger said. “As head of Exxon, it’s his job to get along with Russia. He would be useless as the head of Exxon if he did not have a working relationship with Russia.”
As an Exxon executive, Tillerson’s public views about government and policy have been inextricably linked to his business objectives. He opposed U.S. sanctions after Russia invaded Crimea in Ukraine, and Exxon spent millions of dollars lobbying against them. Tillerson has stressed the importance of energy security to the global economy and to domestic interests, and he has panned the U.S. government for failing to achieve a cohesive, long-term energy agenda. And Tillerson has rued government regulations that have made it more difficult for Exxon to secure permits in this country and elsewhere.
“I never saw a bureaucracy produce a single barrel of oil,” Tillerson is quoted in a 2010 book by Charles Emmerson.
In a statement Tuesday, former vice president Dick Cheney said his “personal friend” Tillerson was an “inspired choice” for secretary of state. “His extensive knowledge of the global situation will be an asset in representing our nation,” Cheney said.
Raised in Oklahoma and Texas, Tillerson, 64, was active in Boy Scouts, ultimately as an Eagle Scout. He did not own a passport until his freshman year of college at the University of Texas, when he traveled with 100 other members of the Longhorn marching band to aid in earthquake recovery efforts in Lima, Peru.
“It made a huge impression on me and probably was my first exposure to what now I have spent my career [doing] ... traveling internationally and working in emerging countries,” Tillerson said in public remarks earlier this year.
At Exxon, Tillerson would come to focus on finding new drilling opportunities around the world. He was named president of Exxon-Yemen in 1995, and in 1998 he transitioned to lead Exxon’s Russia operations.
The role of the Russian government in its oil and gas industries meant Tillerson would be working directly with Russian lawmakers, including Putin. His approach, as he has described it, was to build trust through relationships.
“All things come down to your personal relationships,” Tillerson told Charlie Rose during a 2013 sit-down. “In any country when you’re going to make significant commitments, you have to look the head of state of that country eyeball to eyeball and say to them, ‘I’m going to make this commitment and I’m counting on you and your commitments.’”
Tillerson developed that measure of trust with Putin and his allies over nearly two decades, cultivating a business relationship that benefited both parties. Exxon Mobil invested billions of dollars in Russian oil production, and Russia, the world’s largest oil producer, delivered profits. Three years ago, Putin awarded Tillerson the Order of Friendship, an honor for foreigners who work to improve relations with Russia.
“I don’t agree with everything he’s doing. I don’t agree with everything a lot of leaders are doing,” Tillerson said of Putin earlier this year. “But he understands that I’m a businessman, and our company has invested a lot of money in Russia very successfully.”
In remarks to the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in 2009, sharing the stage with other oil executives, Tillerson was critical, saying Russia “must improve the functioning of its judicial system and its judiciary. There is no respect for the rule of law in Russia today.”
But Tillerson’s working relationship with Russia and other nations will soon come under a harsher light. At Exxon Mobil, Tillerson collaborated with a host of leaders who have been at odds with the United States, including Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.
In Tillerson’s 2013 interview with Rose, he said Gaddafi “was pretty rational in the meeting I had with him, where we talked about what I was going to do, and we had some other things we thought we could do and his interest in that, and that all that I can expect is that he’ll stand by his side of the deal and I promise I’ll stand by mine.”
And even as Tillerson sought, by his telling, to steer clear of U.S. interests in his discussions with foreign heads of state, he did wade into U.S. diplomacy on at least a couple of occasions.
“You’d be surprised how many times I’ve had to have that conversation with heads of state who want to say to me, ‘Well, look, I know you can have some influence on the president. I need you to go back and tell him this,’” Tillerson said during remarks earlier this year. “And there’s only been two occasions where I did that, because it was a matter of national security. And they did not know how to get a message to the White House. So, I did it.”
As Exxon Mobil’s top executive, Tillerson has wielded unusual international power, on par with some heads of state. Exxon Mobil acted “as an independent, transnational corporate sovereign in the world, a power independent of the American government, one devoted firmly to shareholder interests and possessed of its own foreign policy,” Steve Coll, who penned an in-depth book about Exxon Mobil, wrote this week for The New Yorker.
Often, Coll noted, Exxon held more sway in emerging countries, as a function of its large-scale investments, than did the State Department, whose resources and incentives to engage could be limited. President George W. Bush was known to have put it more succinctly, saying of Exxon Mobil, “No one tells them what to do.”
When Rose discussed Bush’s quote with Tillerson in 2013, the oil executive was familiar with it and chuckled.
“I hope people do not see us as being indifferent to national interests,” Tillerson said. “… I’ve heard others make the comment to me, a reference to Exxon Mobil having its own state department. I would tell you it’s not quite that organized.”
But, Rose asked, did Tillerson wish it were? “No,” Tillerson responded, grinning. “Because I think we’re very efficient in how we go about it.”
Now, as he is poised to inherit the actual State Department, Tillerson will be pressed to answer for his decisions and deal making as the head of his pseudo-state, Exxon Mobil, and to show that he can divorce himself from that past.
In March of last year, Tillerson laughed off the idea that he might find himself here.
At a meeting of the Economic Club of Washington, D.C., with the Russian ambassador in the audience, club president David Rubenstein noted the that Tillerson was in town to meet with government officials.
“I take it you’re not in town to interview for a government job,” Rubenstein said. “You wouldn’t be a candidate to work in government?”
Tillerson chuckled, “Probably not qualified.”