The Rex Files

What to Expect From Trump’s Secretary of State

ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson (left) testifies before a committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, January 2016. Joshua Roberts / Reuters

After weeks of suspense, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has finally chosen a secretary of state. On Tuesday morning, he named ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to the position, taking to Twitter shortly after the announcement to tout his pick’s “vast experience at dealing successfully with all types of foreign governments.” 

Tillerson is clearly a dealmaker. Under his leadership, Exxon, which has operations on six continents and a stock market value of more than $390 billion, has inked over a hundred merger and acquisition deals. The next secretary’s negotiating style, much like the next commander-in-chief’s, also suggests a flair for the dramatic. The New York Times recounts one particularly colorful episode in Yemen where Tillerson, on hand to negotiate a natural gas export plant and exhausted by the government’s stonewalling, “flew into a rage, throwing a five-inch-thick book across the room and storming out.” 

Temperament aside, what distinguishes Tillerson as the next face of U.S. foreign policy is his clear understanding of how economic incentives shape government decisions around the world. Optimistically, Tillerson could therefore catalyze a return of what I call geoeconomics—the use of economics as an instrument of statecraft—to U.S. foreign policy, after 15 years in which Washington has relied too heavily on military force. But geoeconomics is ultimately just a set of tools. The question, then, concerns what the new secretary’s aims—and those of his president—will be. Tillerson’s background at Exxon provides some clues, not all of them reassuring.


Tillerson is a lifelong Exxon employee, having led the oil company, the United States’ largest, since 2006. During that time, there was often considerable daylight between Exxon’s interests and those of the United States. In 2013, for instance, Tillerson cut an independent oil deal with the Kurdistan Regional Government, directly defying the State Department’s “one Iraq” policy, which sought to unify the country under a strong, centralized authority in Baghdad. In 2008, after years of coddling former Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi,

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