In a ‘normal’ presidential administration, nominating the CEO of one of the world’s leading oil companies as the chief diplomatic officer of the United States would be a maverick, refreshing and, perhaps, inspiring choice.
After all, it takes some diplomatic skill to navigate the tangled shoals of doing business in some of the world’s leading oil producers, and foreign policy mandarins in Washington certainly have no monopoly on international affairs. As CEO of ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson has embraced the need for alternative energy sources, he has demonstrated that he understands the global challenges of climate change, and he has been a canny and creative executive. He’s obviously a very intelligent guy.
In Donald Trump’s administration, however, Tillerson would be a disastrous choice — for at least two reasons.
The first is the hulking brown bear in the room.
Tillerson, who developed his company’s joint venture with Russian state oil company Rosneft, has closer ties to Vladimir Putin than many other American figures in either the public sector or the private sector. That’s just a fact, and it’s not necessarily disqualifying. Just last week, I applauded Terry Branstad’s nomination as the next ambassador to China precisely because Branstad has worked with Chinese president Xi Jinping in the past, and his nomination could soothe feelings in Beijing. Just as the Obama administration worked with Moscow on the Iran nuclear deal and Syrian chemical weapons, the next administration will have to find ways to work with Moscow where common ground exists.
But Trump didn’t spend an entire presidential campaign cooing over Xi Jinping.
To the contrary, Trump has repeatedly evinced a quirky admiration for Putin and a sympathy for Russia at odds with human rights and freedoms that, until Trump, were are the heart of ‘American values,’ or at least what policymakers ascribe to American values.
Even this weekend, as CIA sources briefed that Russian cyberattacks played a pivotal role in the presidential election, and as a bipartisan consensus emerged about the cybersecurity threat from Russia, Trump refused to countenance any Russian hacking at all.
Of course, it doesn’t stop there. There are Trump’s potentially sketchy business dealings with Russia. His campaign manager through the summer, Paul Manafort, became so toxic that he left the campaign because of the role he played (and payments he took) boosting the pro-Russian former president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. At a convention where the Trump campaign showed little interest in the Republican platform, it nevertheless intervened to weaken the party’s stand on a democratic and free Ukraine. At one point last summer, Trump even invited Russia to hack into Hillary Clinton’s email accounts.
Without entering the domain of conspiracy theories (no, Russian hackers didn’t fix the voting machines in Wisconsin and Michigan to Trump’s favor), suffice it to say that Trump, for whatever reason, has consistently taken a softer line on Russia than any major presidential candidate since Henry Wallace in 1948.
Tillerson’s proximity to the Russian regime adds an air of menace to his candidacy at State, whether warranted or not, because of Trump’s bizarre behavior on Russia. That’s probably not fair to Tillerson, who is far more than just ‘a businessman who’s worked with Putin.’ But symbols and signals matter.
The second issue is that Tillerson has no experience in government or public diplomacy. Had Trump chosen a national security advisor or deputy national security advisor with any real experience in formulating foreign policy, Tillerson’s nomination would be far less risky. Instead, he will join a national security team that is unprecedentedly inexperienced, all of whom will be working for a president who himself has no military or government experience. If, instead of Michael Flynn and KT McFarland, someone like Stephen Hadley or Robert Zoellick were in the West Wing, Tillerson’s nomination would be far less troubling (and possibly even refreshing).
Tillerson would reassure no one outside the United States (except perhaps Russia) that the Trump administration is up to the task of perpetuating American global leadership.
For all his flaws, Mitt Romney is a well-known figure, and leaders across the globe recognize in him the qualities you would associate with an elder statesman — calm, measured, reliable. The same goes for former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who speaks Chinese and served as ambassador to China in the first two years of the Obama administration.
Reports also speculate that Trump is likely to nominate John Bolton as deputy secretary of state, but it would be far better for Bolton to serve as secretary of state outright. You may disagree vehemently with Bolton (as I do) on the Iran deal, and you may believe he’s a throwback to Bush-era neoconservatism (though Bolton never quite fit in that bucket, and he’s far more nuanced than the popular Bolton caricature suggests). But no one would seriously believe Bolton willing or capable of compromising American values over a short-term and naive swoon toward Russia.
Ultimately, neither Tillerson nor Bolton may wind up in Foggy Bottom.
With a slight 10-9 Republican majority on the US Senate foreign relations committee, a single Republican dissenter and united Democratic opposition could stall either nomination. Rand Paul, the non-interventionist and libertarian senator from Kentucky, has spoken out strongly against Bolton. Marco Rubio, the hawkish senator from Florida who like Paul, once ran against Trump for the presidential nomination, could oppose Tillerson (with the full backing of figures like John McCain and Lindsey Graham). So might Jeff Flake, the senator from Arizona, a longtime vocal critic Trump and a key Republican supporter of the Obama administration’s efforts on both Iran and Cuba.
Meanwhile, with just over five weeks to go until inauguration day, and with Trump picking fights with Beijing via Twitter and cable news appearances, the world is watching nervously as the president-elect stages a public version of Celebrity Apprentice to choose his administration’s top diplomat. So far, at least, no one seems incredibly reassured.