Business at the Tiller

FILE - In this Friday, March 27, 2015 file photo, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson delivers remarks on the release of a report by the National Petroleum Council on oil drilling in the Arctic, in Washington. On Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016, President-elect Donald Trump moved closer to nominating Tillerson as his secretary of state, meeting privately with the business leader for the second time in a week. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

There is a long tradition in the United States of appointing people who have no political experience to the cabinet directly from business. This is particularly true of economic portfolios such as Commerce or Treasury but applies in other positions too. The Secretary of State has long been different. All recent Secretaries of State have had at least some political experience prior to their appointment. It is arguable that those who have been senators – John Kerry, Hillary Clinton and Ed Muskie – have lacked both the diplomatic and managerial skills for leading so complex a department. Perhaps political and policy experience is insufficient. But all recent presidents seem to have concluded that it was a necessary part of the skill set.

Many Secretaries of State have already served on the National Security Council either as National Security Adviser (Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell, Henry Kissinger), Treasury Secretary (James Baker, George Schultz), Ambassador to the UN (Madeleine Albright) or White House Chief of Staff (Baker, Al Haig).  Some have advised the National Security Council from a military perspective (Powell, Haig) and many have had leadership experience in the military (Powell, Haig), business (Baker, Schultz) or  academia (Rice). Warren Christopher and Lawrence Eagleburger had both served as Deputy Secretary of State.

This makes Rex Tillerson – CEO of Exxon Mobil – a surprise choice. Politicians with substantial leadership experience, including Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, were passed over in his favor. Perhaps the strongest choice, Jon Huntsman, who has been a state governor, a successful entrepreneur and twice served as an ambassador, seems never to have been seriously considered.

Tillerson has had exactly one employer over the last 41 years. His background has some strengths. He has led one of the world’s largest businesses: executive leadership will not be a surprise to him, as it was to Kerry and Clinton. His background is also global: he has had to deal with some of the world’s most unsavory regimes. Hugo Chavez seized substantial Exxon Mobil assets and Tillerson ran the company’s operations in Russia before taking the global CEO role. He understands pressing global concerns such as climate change, acknowledges the role of fossil fuels in contributing to it, and favors a carbon tax as the best way of internalizing climate costs into consumers’ decisions. All of this is, largely, to his credit.

But the role of a CEO in dealing with brutal dictatorships is different to a Secretary of State. The CEO fosters good relationships, within the law. (Exxon does not seem to have engaged in bribery of foreign officials). But sometimes America needs to confront dictators. Tillerson opposed sanctions on Russia. As CEO of Exxon, that was his job, but what stance will he take when he speaks for the US, not his shareholders?

Donald Trump has had a cozy business relationship with Vladimir Putin and expressed concerning admiration for Putin’s leadership. Russia is a strategic rival of US interests – something the outgoing administration was slow to recognize. To replace the starry-eyed naiveté of the Obama administration with a government that actively admires Putin would be disastrous. This nominee should be scrutinized, extensively.


Quentin Langley lives in New York and London and teaches at the University of Bedfordshire Business School. He is the author of Brandjack: How your reputation is at risk from brand pirates and what to do about it


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