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Tillerson: Company man and Putin pal

Michael Knigge
December 13, 2016

Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump's pick for secretary of state, in two key ways resembles his potential boss. He is a business tycoon with no public service experience who seems to have a soft spot for Vladimir Putin.

Rex W. Tillerson Exxon Mobil CEO
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Curry

If one had to find a suitable person to illustrate the word company man Rex Tillerson would be a good choice. Tillerson, a native Texan with a civil engineering degree from the University of Texas, spent his entire working life with the energy giant ExxonMobil. Tillerson joined the company as a production engineer in 1975 and over decades worked his way up through the ranks to finally become its chief executive in 2006.      

Now, just as he is about to reach Exxon's mandatory retirement age of 65 next March, a new and unlikely job, considering Tillerson's background, beckons as America's top diplomat. Tillerson, like his potential boss Trump, has no prior governmental or public service experience, a first for a secretary of state in the modern era.

Personal ties to Putin

While little is known publicly about Tillerson's foreign policy leanings, what is known is that he possesses extensive business experience in Russia and knows President Vladimir Putin personally. Putin awarded him the Order of Friendship in 2013, an honor bestowed to only a few other Americans.

And it is precisely his Russian connections that made him an attractive candidate for secretary of state. President-elect Trump said recently that he was impressed by Tillerson who had done "massive deals with Russia." Trump also repeatedly stated not only his interest in improving Russian-American relations, but also his admiration for Putin.

Probably Tillerson's biggest "deal" was Exxon's plan to jointly drill for oil in Russia's Arctic with the country's state-owned oil company Rosneft. Exxon eventually had to pull out of the endeavor due to western sanctions after Moscow's annexation of Crimea in Ukraine.     

"I fear Tillerson is compromised because of the possible conflict between business and diplomatic interests," Scott Lucas, a US foreign policy scholar at the UK's University of Birmingham, told DW via email. "He leads a company which is deeply entrenched in Russia and thus - as an example - is invested in the removal of US sanctions."

Russland Putin und Tillerson 2011
Tillerson and Putin reportedly have a close relationshipImage: picture alliance/dpa/Alexey Druginyn Mandatory Credit/R. Novosti

Republican critics and backers

If Trump was interested in a thorough review of the US-Russian relationship, including substantive issues, then perhaps there could have been a level playing field that could have included Tillerson, noted Lucas.

But since Trump had already made clear his interest in a cooperative relationship with Russia, without any apparent thought to the impact of this in key cases, "Tillerson's appointment sounds like a reinforcement of that judgement, rather than a part of a considered process of foreign policy and diplomacy."

Tillerson's Russian connections have already been harshly criticized not just by Congressional Democrats, but also by key Republicans like Marco Rubio, who have publicly indicated that they might vote against confirming him.

But Tillerson also has some prominent Republican backers.  According to media reports, former secretaries of state James Baker and Condeleezza Rice support him as does former Defense Secretary Robert Gates - all of them have business interests in Russia themselves.   

Climate change

The second foreign policy area where Tillerson has staked out a position over the years at the helm at Exxon is climate change. Unlike his predecessor at Exxon he accepts that climate change is real, but argued in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations four years ago that it was an "engineering problem."

USA Vereinte Nationen Unterzeichnung Klimaabkommen von Paris
Exxon, lead by Tillerson, has praised the Paris climate dealImage: Reuters/M. Segar

On the Paris climate deal, the key international agreement to combat global warming, Trump and Tillerson could be headed for conflict. While Trump has promised to pull the US out of the Paris climate agreement Exxon under Tillerson's leadership lauded the deal as an "important step forward."

In Tillerson, should he be confirmed, said Lucas, the US and world would get a secretary of state who is a "skillful businessman," but has questionable qualifications and possible conflicts of interests. Not unlike his future boss.