Rex Tillerson has been confirmed as America’s new secretary of state, in a 56-43 vote that fell basically along party lines. Every Republican and four Democrats voted for him.
With Tillerson’s nomination in the bag, then, the most important question becomes what he’ll do with his new post. The answer? Nobody actually knows.
For one thing, we don’t actually know a ton about what Tillerson actually believes. His background as Exxon Mobil CEO means we don’t have a lot of information about how he understands American foreign policy, and his confirmation hearings didn’t really clear up a lot.
For another, we don’t know how powerful Tillerson will be. It’s possible he will be essentially sidelined, but it’s also possible he’ll be in a position to be play a pivotal role given deep divisions in the Trump foreign policy team. This will be determined by how much access to and influence over Trump he has personally, something we just don’t know right now.
The result, then, is a leap into the unknown. We probably know less about how Tillerson will run the State Department than most any other secretary in recent memory.
What does Rex Tillerson actually think?
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. Exxon Mobil is an absolute behemoth, a 75,000-person company that has to regularly negotiate with the 50-plus 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 unclear how Tillerson thinks about these objectives. Past secretaries of state had experiences that forced them to commit to stating their views on foreign policy in significant depth: Colin Powell was a general, Condoleezza Rice was an international relations professor, and both Hillary Clinton and John Kerry were senators who had run for president. Tillerson has no equivalent experience, and thus little to go on.
The issue, in part, is a question of priorities — how much America should prioritize a basic commitment to human rights and global stability over its own financial or strategic benefit.
Under Tillerson, Exxon had extensive dealings with authoritarian regimes — including truly brutal leaders like Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. At times, 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 in Iraq.
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?
Tillerson’s confirmation hearings did not really clarify his position on these issues, focusing more on his controversial record on Russia and climate change. And even there, Tillerson didn’t clear up much, offering vague answers on policy issues sanctions on Russia and the Paris climate change agreement.
When Sen. Chris Murphy asked Tillerson about human rights abuses in the Philippines and Saudi Arabia, for example, Tillerson simply refused to answer — saying he wanted more information about what happens in those countries before commenting (despite the fact that rights abuses in those two places are famous and well-documented).
“I’m not going to act on what people write about in the newspapers or even what people may brag they’ve done,” Tillerson said. “Because people brag about things that they may or may not have done. I’m going to act on the facts, and if confirmed, I’m going to have access to a lot of information that I don’t have access today.”
This “I want more information” line, one he used several times, allowed him to avoid questions from Murphy and others that attempted to probe his priorities and worldview. So even after the hearing and all the scrutiny he was subjected to afterwards, there are still are big questions about Tillerson’s worldview that remain open.
Will Tillerson wield real influence?
Whatever Tillerson’s views about foreign policy are, it remains unclear how much they’ll matter in the Trump administration.
Unlike incoming Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Tillerson doesn’t have the capability to personally order US troops around and thus shape foreign policy directly. His task is negotiating, and the power of a negotiator comes directly from the sense that he is speaking on behalf of the person with the real authority — that is, President Trump.
“State has the least money and the [fewest] assets,” says Ilan Goldenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security who served in President Obama’s State Department. “Their job is to talk to other people. And if your job is to talk to other people, they need to believe what you’re saying, and they need to believe that you’re representing the president and the US government.”
Which means Tillerson’s authority will be tied directly to whether people believe he has Trump’s ear and speaks on Trump’s authority. But we don’t, and can’t really know in advance, how much Trump will actually trust Tillerson to speak on his behalf and guide him on foreign policy.
Right now, reports suggest that Trump is leaning on his son-in-law Jared Kushner and former Breitbart CEO Steve Bannon for foreign policy advice. If that’s the case, and Tillerson doesn’t end up with a lot of clout with Trump, then Tillerson will end up having little personal impact on shaping US foreign policy.
But if the president comes to trust his judgment, he could end up having immense influence.
Some of Trump’s key advisors, like Bannon and National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, are revisionists who are hostile to America’s traditional alliances and open to a closer relationship with the Kremlin. Others, like Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence, are traditionalists who support maintaining the status quo and a more aggressive approach to Russia.
Tillerson is much more of a question mark — particularly because of his confusing position on Russia. His long history working in Russia, skepticism about sanctions on Russia, and receipt of a medal from Putin personally in 2013 suggest he’s open to revisionist ideas. But during his hearing, Tillerson insisted that he strongly supported maintaining the US commitment to NATO and suggested that the US should send weapons to the Ukrainian government to help fight Russia — positions that should align him with the traditionalists.
If he gets Trump’s ear, Tillerson is in a position to be a sort of swing vote in the Trump Cabinet — a vote either for maintaining America’s current grand strategy or radically revising it to align with the Kremlin and European far-right parties. In that scenario, he could end up being immensely consequential.
So while Tillerson’s confirmation fight may be over, the fate of his time as secretary is very much an open question.