Rex Tillerson to Head Foggy Bottom: A Chance to End Crisis in Russia-US Relationship

On Dec. 13, Donald Trump announced his plan to nominate ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as his Secretary of State. According to president-elect, «His tenacity, broad experience and deep understanding of geopolitics make him an excellent choice for Secretary of State».

Mr. Tillerson, 64, is a businessman who has spent the past four decades at Exxon to acquire vast experience of working overseas, including troubled parts of the world, meeting foreign leaders and making deals. The nominee started his career at ExxonMobil in 1975 as a production engineer. He must retire from Exxon when he turns 65 in March. The company is running operations in over 50 countries, and has cut deals to expand business in Venezuela, Qatar, Iraqi Kurdistan and elsewhere.

True, he has no government or diplomatic experience. At the same time, «He's much more than a business executive, I mean he's a world-class player», as Trump noted in his interview with Fox News.

Indeed, Tillerson is known for his business-like approach when he tackles problems. For instance, defying the Obama administration’s policy, Exxon signed an oil contract with Iraqi Kurdistan in 2011. For Tillerson Exxon was first in that case. And he’ll know how to make America first when he heads Foggy Bottom. No talking about US «exceptionalism», no pontificating and lecturing about «values» and human rights, but taking the bull by the horn and making deals with partners.

Mr. Trump has decided to risk an uphill confirmation battle in the Senate. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee must first approve Tillerson’s nomination before it can head to the floor. Republicans outnumber Democrats by only one on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. One Republican voting against the nomination will prevent a full confirmation vote. Should Tillerson not win confirmation, it would be an early setback for Trump's presidency. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing on Tillerson’s nomination in early January.

Republicans have only 52 votes in the Senate. It will take at least 50 votes to confirm a nominee, plus Vice President-elect Mile Pence casting a tiebreaking vote. Many senators from both parties have said the nomination calls for thorough scrutiny over Mr. Tillerson’s two-decade relationship with Russia, Exxon Mobil’s business interests there and the nominee’s personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Under his leadership, Exxon has entered into joint ventures with Rosneft, a Russian oil company, and donated to the country’s health and social programs.

In 2013, the Russian president Vladimir Putin awarded the nominee the Order of Friendship, one of the highest honors given to foreigners. Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said that Mr. Tillerson’s connections to Russia a matter of concern to him and promised to examine them closely.

Rex Tillerson has many times publicly doubted the wisdom of the anti-Moscow sanctions, which have hindered the implementation of Exxon Mobil’s far-going projects in Russia, including an agreement with the state oil company to explore and pump in Siberia and the Arctic that could be worth tens of billions of dollars. Lifting the sanctions will be one of the issues to top Mr. Tillerson’s agenda when he takes office. But the calls for lifting them are also getting louder among the US allies in Europe. It’s a trend. The restrictive measures will have to be rescinded soon anyway.

It’s important to note that the stance towards Moscow advocated by Rex Tillerman has support among political heavyweights holding seats in Congress. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., who chairs the United States House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats, had also been on a candidates’ list for the position of state secretary. In his Dec. 7 he said that «If it’s right for us to join in and cooperate and have a better relationship with Russia in order to defeat radical Islam». According to the congressman, «Russia is no longer the Soviet Union. There’s a bunch of people here who want to treat it like it’s still the Soviet Union and get in the Cold War. That’s not what Donald Trump wants, it’s not good for America, and it’s better to cooperate with them to actually take on real enemies».

It’s hard to suspect Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) to harbor sympathy towards Russia. But he issued a statement supporting the nomination of Tillerson, «a very impressive individual and has an extraordinary working knowledge of the world».

The success of Donald Trump at the presidential race reflects the changing mood among American people who question the wisdom of being a global policeman, increasing the already sky high national debt and sapping the resources of the nation for the goals that have nothing to do with the interests of common people. The same way, the support for the candidacy of Tillerman reflects the changing mood among the lawmakers who view the interests of common Americans as a foreign policy priority with businesslike approach being an effective tool to serve the purpose.

There are very influential forces in the Senate who are applying efforts to hinder any change of foreign policy Donald Trump is expected to introduce. And they are bracing for a tough fight at the confirmation hearings. But the shift advocated by the president-elect has broad popular support. It’s hard to obstruct every step he takes.

The very fact that an experienced sober-minded businessman was chosen for the nomination shows there is a fresh wind blowing. The crisis in the relations does not satisfy neither side. A state secretary may not feel sympathy for Russia. The top diplomat’s job is the art of conducting negotiations. The time is right to launch a dialogue of equals and talk shop to see what Russia and the US can do together for mutual benefit. An experienced businessman is the best choice to make the mission accomplished.