Rex Tillerson: Secretary of State or sign of things to come?

During his campaign, Trump had warned that he would break away from establishment circles and business as usual in Washington

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Donald Trump took another bold decision yesterday by announcing his intention to appoint Rex Tillerson as his Secretary of State. Despite his own lack of expertise in foreign affairs and candid comments toward authoritarian regimes around the world, which ignited controversies throughout the presidential campaign, Trump turned his back to more proven politicians and opted for the CEO of ExxonMobil to hold the reins of American diplomacy.

Tillerson spent his entire career within the rank of the oil corporation, a tenure during which he familiarized himself with the arcane of petroleum powers such as Saudi Arabia or Russia. However, he does not have under his belt any experience in regards to other fields of diplomacy such as trade negotiations, peace building or the very definition of a foreign policy strategy based on other principles than pure business oriented profitmaking.

During the campaign, Donald Trump warned that he would break away from establishment circles and business as usual in Washington. His recent nominations have shown that he privileged outsiders over seasoned veterans with three retired senior militaries and a handful of private sector representatives already nominated to key positions, sometimes from the very financial lobbies he regularly criticized like former Goldman Sachs’ Steve Mnuchnin for Treasury Secretary. Yet his latest pick in Rex Tillerson is most likely to create the most opposition during his confirmation oral at the Senate for a series of reasons.

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The first is obviously the level of the position at stake. The Secretary of State is the third-highest official of the executive branch of the United States, after the President and Vice President. From Thomas Jefferson to Hillary Clinton, through Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright, the men and women entrusted with this mission played a colossal role in the definition and implementation of the foreign policy of the most powerful nation on earth and de facto their decisions are key to the maintaining of global security. Placing at this position someone with no political nor diplomatic experience is at best a huge gamble.

Trump will also face opposition from the Senate to confirm Tillerson because he deliberately decided to neglect other more traditional candidate from the very ranks of the Republican Party. Early frontrunners included indeed former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney. In particular Romney was forced to swallow his pride and was mocked for reneging his recent harsh criticisms in the hope of landing the coveted position.

Trump could have chosen to appear magnanimous by gathering around him one of his fiercest critic. Instead, after a humiliating display at Trump Tower he abandoned a hopeful Romney on the side of the road.

Republican ranks

More critics arose from within the Republican flanks and in particular from Senator McCain and Senator Rubio. Both expressed their serious concerns over the ties that Tillerman forged over the last 25 years with Vladimir Putin, who in 2013 gave him the highest honor for a civilian, the Order of Friendship. This Russian tropism also coincides with accusations of Moscow’s interference in the November Presidential election, as suggested by recent American intelligence reports, accusations dealt with nothing but contempt by the billionaire.

To underline an unprecedented mistrust of the CIA, the federal agency which has so far been the most categorical about Russian meddling, the real estate tycoon announced that he did not intend to even attend, like his predecessors, regular intelligence briefings.

Barack Obama asked for a thorough investigation of potential Russian interference with the agreement of two republican heavyweights, the representative of the Republican majority in Congress and in the Senate: Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. The two Republican leaders expressed on this occasion a distrust of Russia which contrasts with the will of opening sketched so far by Mr. Trump and that the choice of Mr. Tillerson confirms.

Public statements from Rex Tillerson on his vision of the world and American foreign policy are rare. He did however publicly condemn the sanctions against Russia after the annexation of the Crimea in 2014, following a controversial referendum. He later met with Igor Sechin, the CEO of the Russian energy company Rosneft, a close friend of President Vladimir Putin and one of the main personality directly targeted by American sanctions.

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At a moment when the American administration was encouraging companies to limit their partnership with Russia, ExxonMobil signed several partnerships with Rossneft under Tillerson, and in particular an agreement for joint projects in the Arctic and Siberia. ExxonMobil was one of the companies who suffered the most from the sanctions on Russia and Tillerson will likely try to overturn them.

Finally, appointing the CEO of a fossil fuel company is a terrible signal sent to international negotiators on climate change. If Exxon was present during the Paris negotiations, eventually confirming the need for actions against man made global warming, Tillerson might not be able to change Trump’s adamancy on the topic.

Another negative signal in the fact that Trump appears to be surrounding himself by millionaires, thus increasing the income gaps in the US and a feeling that the political establishment has been replaced by an economic and financial clique made of millionaires.

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