For a candidate who promised to “drain the swamp” and represent communities ground down by the depredations of big business, President-elect Donald Trump has done a good job of placing those he attacked before his election into positions of power (AE 335/21). Investment bank Goldman Sachs has three former and current executives in key positions. Big Oil is represented not only by climate change sceptics, but in ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson it has one of its genuine stars at the helm of US foreign policy.
Pending the initial public offering of Saudi Aramco, ExxonMobil is the world’s largest commercial oil company. But does Tillerson’s corporate CV mean he is ready to take over the Department of State and guide the United States’ complex diplomacy? And will his business relations colour US policy?
While conventional wisdom has it that Africa will plummet down the agenda as Barack Obama hands over to Trump, in Tillerson US diplomacy will be guided by an executive with a transactional outlook, Texan business values and long experience on the continent. Much attention has been paid to Tillerson’s Russian connections – President Vladimir Putin awarded him the Russian Order of Friendship in recognition of a warm personal relationship and ExxonMobil’s diplomatic skills – but Africa can look forward to a 64-year-old secretary of state who, in a 41-year career at ExxonMobil, has done business, cultivated relationships and harvested corporate intelligence on its most important regional partners, including Angola, Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria. ExxonMobil has been less active in North Africa, but the new secretary of state had a chastening experience in Libya, where ExxonMobil’s ambitious plans had already cost a very substantial sum before being submerged by the post-Qadhafi political chaos.
Tillerson (who also had a bad experience in Iraq) may have started as a production engineer, but as The New York Times commented, he “went on to strike deals for a company that explores for, buys and sells oil and gas in some of the world’s most troubled corners… [and] has needed some sharp diplomatic skills. He has worked with leaders of numerous countries, including Nigeria and Qatar, and Exxon has been dominant in many countries, including Equatorial Guinea and Sudan.” Trump told Fox News he was “much more than a business executive – he’s a world-class player”.
Tillerson’s record will be closely examined in what could be a tense Congressional hearing to confirm (or reject) his appointment. Knives have been sharpened by leading Republicans including senators John McCain and Marco Rubio, let alone by Democrat rivals.
Once confirmed, Tillerson should fit well with Trump’s transactional style of government. The approaches to diplomacy and international economic relations of these deal-makers could well be trying for foreign policy professionals in Washington. Environmental campaigners will be deeply concerned that Tillerson is the representative of a company that has been no friend of the climate change agenda. Although ExxonMobil’s stance on global warming has eased under Tillerson’s leadership (his predecessor Lee Raymond was a confirmed denier), the US supermajor remains far behind BP, Royal Dutch Shell and others who have increasingly embraced the energy transition agenda.
In the run-up to Trump being sworn in in January, much remains to be revealed about how he will govern. A transactional administration is likely to keep in place the business promotion vehicles that Obama placed into the Power Africa framework, even if the branding changes. If Tillerson’s Department of State behaves like the ExxonMobil African Energy has observed over many years, the administration will be less concerned with human rights and other ‘liberal’ agendas than with gaining advantage for America Inc. Washington’s representatives could take a more imperial approach to dealing with abroad – which is often apparent in ExxonMobil’s negotiating stance – and abroad had better be ready for some tough talking.
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