When he sits down Wednesday for his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State-nominee Rex Tillerson will immediately become one of the most unusual picks to be the America’s top diplomat in recent US history.
A former ExxonMobil CEO, Rex Tillerson has no experience inside the US government and a long record of working with foreign powers, most notably Vladimir Putin’s Russia. That relationship led Sen. John McCain, a leading Russia hawk, to say he could only support Tillerson “when pigs fly.”
McCain’s office later claimed this was a joke. And Tillerson does have strong support from leading Republican foreign policy hands, like former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. But other Republicans besides McCain — including Foreign Relations committee member Marco Rubio — have expressed concern about Tillerson. Democrats only need one GOP senator to break ranks to be able to block the nomination from making it through the committee (though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could bring it to a floor vote anyway).
All of that means that Wednesday’s confirmation hearing will be a doozy. But what, exactly, should the senators try to learn about him? What are the big questions about Tillerson that are still unanswered, the kind of thing you really want to know about someone before they take one of the world’s most important jobs?
So I’ve put together a list of five of the most important things the Senate should try to push him on — issues ranging from Russia to climate change to the role human rights should play in foreign policy.
It’s not an exhaustive list — the man’s decades of work in one of the world’s biggest corporations leaves a long record to interrogate. But it’s the minimum the nation deserves to know about the man who could soon be its diplomat
1) What matters in foreign policy (aside from oil)?
One of the major points in Tillerson’s favor is that he has much more experience running a massive international bureaucracy than your typical Cabinet-level appointee. ExxonMobil is an absolute behemoth, a 75,000-person company that has to regularly negotiate with the 50+ countries where it operates.
As a result, the company functions more like an independent government, complete with its own rather large internal intelligence service, than a traditional corporation. Read a book on Exxon like Private Empire, by renowned reporter Steve Coll, and you’ll learn about how Exxon has attempted to strong-arm oil rich governments, like Venezuela, and operate private armies around the globe. George W. Bush, per Coll, once told then-Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh, “nobody tells those guys [Exxon] what to do.”
But Exxon has one goal: making itself money. The US government, obviously, has a much broader set of objectives, ranging from defending US allies to keeping global trade functioning to promoting human rights. It’s totally unclear how Tillerson thinks about these objectives.
This is, in part, a question of priorities. Under Tillerson, Exxon had extensive dealings with authoritarian regimes. For example, one dissident in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea told the New York Times that revenue-sharing deals with Exxon help prop up his country’s brutal dictator, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. Does Tillerson think that his company is complicit in Obiang’s human rights abuses, which include torturing dissidents? And how much does he care it was?
At times, in fact, Exxon under Tillerson actively undermined US foreign policy. In 2011, the US was pushing for a national oil sharing agreement in Iraq, which it saw as crucial to uniting the country’s Sunni, Shia, and Kurds. Exxon went ahead and signed a bilateral agreement with the Kurds to develop oil they controlled — enriching Exxon but undermining the goal of running oil policy through the central government
There’s also a more subtle issue of mindset. Even if Tillerson does care about things other than oil — he is a literal Boy Scout, after all — it’s very hard to keep your background from affecting your judgment. If you’ve spent decades thinking about world affairs in terms of your bottom line, as Exxon leaders have, how easy will it be to start considering a broader slate of priorities in negotiations with foreign leaders? Will undue weight be given to American financial and corporate interests?
This is a subtle, difficult thing to probe. But it gets at the heart of whether Tillerson is well-suited to jump from the corporate world to public service.
2) What, exactly, is the deal with Tillerson and Russia?
Tillerson has a very long record of dealing with foreign powers. But his relationship with Russia really stands out.
Tillerson was appointed to lead Exxon’s Russia division in 1998. One of his earliest strategies was to invest in a state-run Russian oil company to put Exxon and Russia “on the same side of the table” (quote per Coll). He negotiated a deal with Putin, personally, to invest in oil fields in Russia’s Sakhalin province in 2001. By 2002, Coll reports, “he had risen to the cusp of the top job at ExxonMobil partly on the strength of his work in Russia.”
He ultimately won that job in 2006, and proceeded to double down on Exxon’s commitment to Russia. Between 2011 and 2013, he struck more than 10 agreements, valued at hundreds of millions in total, with Rosneft, Russia’s state-run oil giant. Tillerson’s Exxon predecessor, Lee Raymond, had deemed Rosneft too risky to go into business with due to its reputation for corruption and mismanagement.
In 2013, Putin awarded Tillerson the Order of Friendship, one of Russia’s highest state honors for foreign citizens, for his work strengthening economic ties between the two states. Much of Exxon’s work in Russia had to be put on hold in 2014, after the US imposed sanctions on the Russian oil industry as punishment for its invasion of Ukraine — sanctions he criticized in a speech after they were imposed.
“We do not support sanctions, generally, because we don’t find them to be effective,” he said. “We always encourage the people who are making those decisions to consider the very broad collateral damage of who are they really harming.”
Interestingly, though, he hasn’t spoken has positively about Putin as Trump (who once suggested in a tweet that the Russian leader should be his “new best friend.”) The closest Tillerson has come were some comments in a February 2016 speech at the University of Texas, reported by the Wall Street Journal:
I have a very close relationship with [Putin.] I don’t agree with everything he’s doing. I don’t agree with everything a lot of leaders are doing. But he understands that I am a businessman. And I have invested a lot of money, our company has invested a lot of money, in Russia, very successfully.
That being said, his history in Russia is not trivial. Tillerson’s career and fortune were made, in part, on his ability to advance ExxonMobil’s interests in Russia. Figuring out exactly how this shapes his worldview — are Russia sanctions just bad for Exxon, or the US more broadly? — is of paramount importance given Russia’s role in US and world politics. And the truth is we don’t have a great idea what his answers might be.
3) What does he really think about climate change?
Tillerson’s record on climate change is a little more nuanced than you’d expect from an oil executive. When he took over the company in 2006, he ordered an internal review of its position on climate change — which had previously been deny, deny, deny. The review advised Tillerson to revamp the company’s position, opening the door to the idea that humans contributed to climate change.
Tillerson’s positions after the review were quite strange. He opposed the 2009 cap and trade bill, which would have placed an overall limit on carbon emissions, but supported a carbon tax as an alternative. He repeatedly and publicly cast doubt on the validity of climate science, but worked to cut Exxon’s own emissions, successfully reducing them by at least 11 million metric tons during his tenure.
Through all of this, it’s kind of difficult to figure out what Tillerson actually thinks — he was heavily constrained by running a company that is one of the world’s single biggest contributors to climate change. But the question of what he actually believes, freed of corporate constraints, is now super-important.
Climate change is a terrible issue, in large part, because it can’t be solved without international cooperation — big emitters like the US and China need to agree to move away from carbon together, or else the realities of international competition mean nobody probably will. The 2015 agreement struck in Paris is, for that reason, widely seen as one of the Obama administration’s most significant foreign policy achievements — it created a framework for that kind of crucial cooperation down the line.
Trump has said he wants to pull the US out of the Paris agreement, which would effectively scuttle it. Tillerson, given his position, could very well have a lot of influence over whether Trump acts on this idea. So what does he want America to do? And how does he plan to proceed on other international climate talks?
4) What does Tillerson think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Exxon obviously has a lot of interests in the Middle East. But it has relatively little involvement with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, given the lack of major oil deposits in Israel and the Palestinian territories. As a result, Tillerson doesn’t have anything like the established record on these issue that he does on, say, climate change and Russia.
“Tillerson, it seems, is a blank slate as far as Israel is concerned,” Israeli columnist Chemi Shalev writes in Ha’aretz.
Interestingly, though, Israelis are somewhat skeptical about him. Because oil executives have to work closely with Arab leaders, particularly Gulf monarchs, they learn a lot about the conflict from an Arab perspective. This tends to make them more critical of Israeli conduct than your typical American, especially your typical modern Republican.
The Arabists in the oil industry shaped GOP opinion on Israel more during the Cold War than it does today. Even some post-Cold War Republicans, like George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of State James Baker, took a harder line on Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank than his GOP contemporaries. Baker supports the Tillerson nomination, which is part of why Israelis view Tillerson skeptically.
If Tillerson has Baker-esque views, then he’ll be at odds with the president-elect. Trump has accused Obama of letting “Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect.” His pick for ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is a hard-line, anti-two-state solution ideologue who thinks liberal Jews are “worse” than Nazi collaborators.
So how does Tillerson propose handling the moribund two-state solution? Do his views look more like his industry’s or his prospective bosses’?
5) How do he see Trump’s proposal to “take the oil?”
For the past several years, Trump has insisted that the United States should have taken Iraq’s oil after the 2003 invasion. He has even suggested that the US could still do it as part of the war on ISIS. "You’ll get Exxon to come in there … they’ll rebuild that sucker brand new. And I’ll take the oil," he said in a 2015 stump appearance.
This is a truly awful idea, most notably because stealing other countries’ national resources is colonial and wrong. But it also basically misunderstands oil markets. The US doesn’t benefit by stealing other countries’ oil, so much as the free flow of product on global markets.
This is oil economics 101, and Tillerson is on record stating it. “The global free market for energy provides the most effective means of achieving US energy security,” Tillerson wrote in an early 2000s internal Exxon memo reported by Coll. “In the global market, the nationality of the resource is of little relevance.”
Tillerson is thus on record attacking the underpinnings of one of Trump’s favored ideas. The question is whether, when questioned by a senator, he’d be willing to say that the principles laid out in that memo apply to Trump’s “take the oil idea.”
How Tillerson reacts to this line of question could be quite telling. One of the biggest fears about the incoming Trump administration is the new president, who knows very little about how the world works, orders the US military to do something outlandish and dangerous — like, say, “take the oil.” Asking Tillerson about this particular one, which he clearly knows is false, would be a way of testing just how willing he is to push back internally on Trump’s wilder tendencies.