J. Stewart Cook
I recently read an article by Stephen M. Walt, author and American professor of International Affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. The title of the article is “Rex Tillerson is Underrated.” I could not agree more. Though, there are parts of his article I see in a different light.
Rex Tillerson, “T-Rex,” as I Iike to call him, is the Secretary of State for the United States of America. He is a formidable individual, impressively large, powerful, intense, and capable of inspiring respect more so than fear.
Though, not necessarily fully-versed in foreign affairs, he has had much exposure to the world through his role as the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of ExxonMobil from 2006 to 2016. In 1998, he became a vice president of Exxon Ventures (CIS) and president of Exxon Neftegas Limited with responsibility for Exxon’s holdings in Russia and the Caspian Sea. His exposure to Russia, prior to being named Secretary of State, was undoubtedly a key factor when considering his nomination for the position of Secretary of State. In fact, in 2013, Tillerson was awarded the Order of Friendship by Vladimir Putin for his contribution to developing cooperation in the energy sector. As well, his exposure to the Middle East, via Exxon, gave him a much greater understanding of the governance of countries like Iran, Sudan, and Syria.
It is inevitable, in his position with Exxon, that Rex Tillerson would be immersed in the political world. As an example, in 2009 Tillerson approved Exxon negotiating a multibillion-dollar deal with the government of Iraqi Kurdistan, despite opposition from President Barack Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, both of whom argued it would increase regional instability. There are many other examples of Rex Tillerson having relationships with heads of states of other countries…all to his benefit and that of the USA in his role as Secretary of State.
So, does Rex Tillerson have what it takes to be a Secretary of State? Well, I wouldn’t refer to him as the “T-Rex” of foreign affairs if I did not believe so!
On a first note, the 14,000 or so members of the Foreign Service see themselves as the “elite” of the diplomatic world. Secondly, they know that they will always be more qualified than the Secretary of State. Of course, as Secretary of State, one would not question the aforementioned and, thus, engage with them accordingly.
One of the advantages Rex Tillerson has had over other Secretary of States’ was gained while working for Exxon and having a division called the International Government Relations Group. It is a group of foreign policy experts, some who formerly worked in the Foreign Service. He relied heavily on this group for their knowledge and advice, no differently than a Secretary of State would rely on the Foreign Service. It is understandable that a company dealing regularly with countries world-wide would need such a division.
One would now think that the relationship between Rex Tillerson and the Foreign Service would be solid and admirable. Not so says the Service. Not wanting to go through a “litany of petitions” expressed by the Foreign Service, with respect to Rex Tillerson’s leadership, let one say that “their affairs are foreign to each other!” There is, undoubtedly, an anguish amongst the ranks. Such being so, is there a solution?
Rex Tillerson was recommended to Donald Trump by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, during a meeting she held with Trump, in late November 2016. Rice’s recommendation of Tillerson was backed by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. His nomination was accepted and he was sworn in on February 1, 2017.
Having to answer to President Donald Trump is a challenge in itself. A quick read is required to understand what makes him “tick!” I believe Rex Tillerson has reached such a point and is able to respond to his “minute-by-minute” plays and, simultaneously, convey to his diplomats the points that truly matter. The other side of the coin are the “diplomats.” They are a “cozy” group that continually work on fine-tuning their operations. Do not let anyone make changes unless they are for the betterment of the Foreign Service. And, who knows better than the Foreign Service itself. Rex Tillerson has commenced a process by hiring a consulting firm to look at the operations of the Foreign Service. It’s to be seen how successful such a review will be for the Service.
He has since travelled the world meeting with heads of states and dignitaries. For the most part, his meetings have been successful and, accordingly, “he has been praised for setting the right tone for diplomats.”
It is without saying that he has had his challenges with the President, nevertheless, he stands firm in his beliefs as to how the Foreign Service should be governed. A number of experts in the field of international affairs have criticized his tenure as Secretary of State. On the other hand, others have cited that the Secretary needs more time to prove himself and to demonstrate that the actions he has taken will be successful. I can only think that success will be on his side!
I am sure, in time, that Rex Tillerson will be well looked upon by his cabinet colleagues and, more so, by the President. He recently eased tensions with the President. He stated, “I am fully committed to his objectives. I agree with his objectives. I agree with what he is trying to do.” Obviously, there will always be some differences along the way, however, the Secretary added, “I will work as hard as I can to implement his decisions successfully.”
The “T-Rex,” (tyrannosaurus rex, of which the word “rex” means “king” in Latin) is still among the largest known land predators and is estimated to have exerted the largest bite force among all terrestrial animals. It is without saying, that Rex Tillerson could have once been considered a corporate predator acquiring business rivals. However, in his new role, he may not be seen as a corporate predator, though he may just be the person with the largest bite force, not having to worry that he “bit off more than he can chew.”