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Trump’s tip for chief diplomat is hard-talking Texan

During the gradual rapprochement between the US and Muammer Gaddafi’s Libya in February 2007, Rex Tillerson visited the country and met its leader in his traditional tent.

As chief executive of ExxonMobil, the world’s largest listed oil company, Mr Tillerson had an interest in opening up access to Libya’s vast reserves, but his visit was also a milestone in the progress towards normal relations with the US. 

With Rex Tillerson as our secretary of state, the Trump administration would be guaranteeing Russia has a willing accomplice in the president’s cabinet guiding our nation’s foreign policy

The meeting was a success on both fronts. In November that year Exxon signed an agreement to explore for new reserves in the deep waters off Libya’s coast, and the following year Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state, became the most senior US visitor to Libya for half a century. 

The emergence of the Exxon chief executive as frontrunner to be secretary of state in Donald Trump’s administration has surprised many and angered some, particularly because of his ties to Russia and his position on climate change. 

His Libya trip shows that he does at least have extensive relevant experience, however. Running a big international oil company successfully is in large part a matter of managing relationships with foreign governments. 

A broad-shouldered, plain-speaking Texan engineer, the 64-year-old Mr Tillerson has led Exxon since 2006 and worked at the company for 41 years. His character and the company’s reflect each other: highly competent, intellectually rigorous, but also often inflexible. 

Mr Trump’s picks for his administration suggest he wants America to be more assertive, and Rex Tillerson is someone who is not going to settle

He is not a polished diplomat. But he has been an effective negotiator, and has maintained and developed Exxon’s relationships with resource-rich countries all over the world. 

Nor is he is universally liked by his industry peers, who sometimes see him as arrogant and high-handed. But he is widely respected for the quality of Exxon’s engineering and project management, generally recognised as the best in the business. 

“What Donald Trump has shown he wants to do is hire smart, hard people, and Rex Tillerson fits that bill,” says Robin West, managing director of the BCG Center for Energy Impact. 

“Mr Trump’s picks for his administration suggest he wants America to be more assertive, and Rex Tillerson is someone who is not going to settle.”

Mr Tillerson demonstrated his unwillingness to compromise in his dealings with Venezuela. When President Hugo Chávez sought to expand state control over the heavy-oil projects of the Orinoco Belt in 2007, most other foreign companies working there decided to continue to work under the new, worse terms. But Exxon chose not to sign, forcing Venezuela to expropriate the assets and starting a long-running case for compensation at a World Bank tribunal.

Rex Tillerson © Reuters

Exxon’s relationship with Russia has run more smoothly, fuelling speculation about Mr Tillerson’s views. John McCain, the Republican senator from Arizona, told Fox News on Saturday that his ties to Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, were “a matter of concern to me.”

Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican senator, tweeted on Sunday: “Being a ‘friend of Vladimir’ is not an attribute I am hoping for from a #SecretaryOfState.”

Although Republicans enjoy a big enough advantage in the Senate to ensure Mr Tillerson’s confirmation, the majority in the foreign relations committee is expected to be only 10 to 9, which means it would take just one defection to threaten the nomination.

Robert Menendez, one of the senior Democrats on the committee, said the nomination of Mr Tillerson would be “alarming and absurd”.

“With Rex Tillerson as our secretary of state, the Trump administration would be guaranteeing Russia has a willing accomplice in the president’s cabinet guiding our nation’s foreign policy,” he said.

Mr Tillerson’s connections with Russia go back to 1998-99, when he was Exxon’s vice-president with responsibility for the country and the Caspian Sea. 

His experience and contacts paid off in 2011-13, when Exxon signed a series of deals to develop Russia’s oil reserves in the Arctic and the shale of western Siberia. Mr Tillerson negotiated the deals with Mr Putin, and in 2013 he was awarded Russia’s order of friendship. 

The strategy hit the rocks after Russia’s invasion of Crimea: western sanctions prevented oil companies working in the Arctic or shale in Russia, and Exxon was forced to write off $1bn. Mr Tillerson said he still hoped to develop those resources in the future, though, and said he had urged the US administration to think about the possible “collateral damage” from sanctions.

Mr West, however, suggests those views would not necessarily reflect Mr Tillerson’s position in office. “It’s wrong to think of Rex Tillerson as being in Putin’s pocket,” Mr West says. “He had good relations with Russia because Exxon did a lot of business there.” 

The other principal criticism of Mr Tillerson has been over his position on climate change. Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmental campaigner, said Mr Trump’s apparent choice of Mr Tillerson “completes the takeover of our democracy by Big Oil, Wall Street and the Far Right.”

Under Mr Tillerson, Exxon has shifted its stance on climate change. He told a conference in London in October: “We share the view that the risks of climate change are real and require serious action.”

However, he has also argued this year that: “The world is going to have to continue using fossil fuels, whether they like it or not,” suggesting he is unlikely to resist Mr Trump’s plans to reverse the shift away from oil, gas and coal favoured by President Barack Obama.

Whatever he tries to achieve, Mr Tillerson could be hampered by his inexperience with working in government. Exxon is a smoothly run, hierarchical organisation, and dealing with the complexities of politics and bureaucracy will be an unfamiliar challenge.

additional reporting by Geoff Dyer in Washington

Via FT