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Trump’s secretary of state pick could give Putin some very unfortunate ideas

- December 13, 2016

Donald Trump has apparently chosen Rex Tillerson, chief executive of ExxonMobil, to be secretary of state. John R. Bolton, a hawkish Bush administration official and fierce supporter of the 2003 Iraq War, is in line to become the deputy secretary. (Perhaps Trump sincerely considered Mitt Romney, but he may alternatively have played him, defanging Romney as a critic.)

Setting aside the uncertainties of Senate confirmation, it is worth considering the nomination as a social scientist (read Steve Coll’s piece for a different kind of expertise).

Is Tillerson qualified to act as secretary of state?

By all accounts, Tillerson is smart, hard-working, and has a lot of experience overseas with ExxonMobil. Still, he has zero experience in public office. So does Trump.

Research by Elizabeth Saunders, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University, suggests that advisers matter a lot for inexperienced presidents. One problem is that when a major international crisis strikes, the only people in the Situation Room with real expertise in public office will be the generals (such as the person selected to be national security adviser and the nominee for secretary of defense). Although generals bring a wealth of information to the table, their experience reflects a specific kind of organization. Presidents ought to be able to draw on a variety of advice from people who have a good understanding of how the system works, but very different perspectives.

Regardless of Tillerson’s personal virtues, his career at ExxonMobil raises significant questions. Others have covered Tillerson’s relations with Russia in great detail. In 2011, Tillerson negotiated a multibillion-dollar deal between Exxon and Russia to drill for oil, but that deal ran into trouble when Russia annexed Crimea and the Obama administration responded with sanctions on Russia. Tillerson was a vocal opponent of sanctions. It is perhaps not surprising that the Russian Duma applauds Tillerson’s candidacy. The recent controversies surrounding alleged Russian interference with the election add to concerns about Tillerson’s close relationship with key Russian politicians and leaders in the energy sector (the two tend to blend into each other).

The nomination might send mixed signals to Russia

Political scientists might expect Trump’s nomination of Tillerson and other positive signals to Russia to be dangerously destabilizing, perhaps even leading to war, as Phil Arena of the University of Essex points out. Russia’s economy is unsustainable, meaning that Putin has increasingly staked his legitimacy on aggressive nationalism. Putin may interpret the nomination, and other signals from Trump, as suggesting that Trump will not defend states in Eastern Europe from Russian aggression.

If Putin faces declining popularity at any time during a Trump administration, he might decide to take further aggressive action in Eastern Europe, gambling that the United States and NATO will not respond with force. Trump would then face a terrible choice: compromise the integrity of American defense alliances or go to war with a nuclear power. In that kind of situation, we might want Trump’s top diplomatic adviser to have broader policy experience than a 41-year career at ExxonMobil.

The nomination may have implications for climate change

ExxonMobil’s record on climate change is problematic. Steve Coll’s book Private Empire documents that ExxonMobil knew climate change was real since the 1970s and privately incorporated the science of climate change into its own oil exploration models. (ExxonMobil’s Arctic operations in Russia are made possible by climate change.) At the same time, ExxonMobil publicly questioned climate science for years, with the apparent goal of causing just enough public doubt about the science to prevent any meaningful policy action against fossil fuels. Tillerson himself expressed doubts on climate change as recently as 2005.

ExxonMobil’s approach changed under Tillerson, who publicly acknowledged climate change and called for a carbon tax to deal with it. Some give him a lot of credit for that change, but Tillerson only called for the carbon tax after it was patently clear that Congress would not pass it — and as a gambit to block a viable alternative, the cap-and-trade system (it was never passed). Moreover, Tillerson’s recognition of climate change might have been driven by concern that ExxonMobil would be sued for its past behavior — and indeed that lawsuit is now underway.

The nomination could damage U.S. legitimacy

Political scientists talk about the “liberal order” that the United States has helped to create, and argue that it helped reassure U.S. allies that they would neither be abandoned nor exploited. Moving ExxonMobil’s CEO to secretary of state will deepen the belief among many foreign audiences that American “order” is a thin veil for resource-hungry neocolonialism.

In the past three Republican administrations, a president (Bush Sr.), a vice president (Cheney), and now a secretary of state candidate (Tillerson) were all former oil executives. This is not just a concern because it creates many potential conflicts of interests, such as ExxonMobil’s direct financial stake in the removal of sanctions on Russia. It also lends credibility to the view that the American oil industry is effectively an overseas arm of the American government.

This belief has had potentially disastrous consequences, especially in the Middle East. Osama bin Laden called exports of Saudi oil “the greatest theft in history,” to stoke up grievances and help al-Qaeda recruit fighters and donors. Research demonstrates links between oil and terrorism. Even the appearance of close ties between oil companies and the U.S. government complicates an already difficult situation for Middle East policy.

Tillerson’s nomination ought to be a wake-up call for scholars of international relations, who have for too long paid scant attention to oil and energy. The United States’ two wars with Iraq were not wholly about oil, but oil is central to the whole way in which the United States views the Middle East as strategically important. Energy can be used as a tool for foreign policy and sanctions (as it was with Russia); it can generate petro-aggression or, under different conditions, international cooperation; and it is often the background condition that leads to civil wars and the resource curse.

My own modest research efforts suggest multiple links between oil and international security, but many unanswered questions remain. Under what conditions, for instance, do large oil companies become covert agents of a state — and not always their own state? When do such oil companies subvert the policies of their home governments? Perhaps most important, we need to know more about how energy needs and opportunities help shape how countries, including the United States, define their national interests.

Overall, social science raises a series of difficult questions about Tillerson’s nomination. Given the real possibility of democratic erosion and creeping autocracy in Trump’s presidency, the United States has other worries at the moment. Even the United States, however, ignores the quality of its diplomacy at its peril.