In nominating Rex Tillerson, Chief Executive of the oil and gas conglomerate ExxonMobil, to the post of Secretary of State, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has provided another glimpse into his world view and decision-making process. Similar to Mr. Trump, Mr. Tillerson has no formal experience in political office, yet brings impressive heft in terms of deal-making across 52 countries over six continents. On his watch, the stock market value of ExxonMobil, the U.S.’s largest oil company, soared to over $360 billion. Yet the vast global reach of Mr. Tillerson’s work and the sheer complexities involved in drilling for oil, especially the sometimes messy geopolitics at play, have meant he has often been at odds with the agenda of the U.S. State Department. In Nigeria, for example, his company faced flak for lack of transparency in dealings with the government. Nowhere is the potential divergence from the hallowed traditions of Foggy Bottom’s diplomatic norms more visible than in Mr. Tillerson’s decade-plus engagement with Russia to secure oil drilling rights. Under him, ExxonMobil since 2006 signed a plethora of drilling agreements including through partnerships with the Russian oil behemoth Rosneft. Yet, as Mr. Tillerson’s star rose in the eyes of the Kremlin, U.S. President Barack Obama’s fell, especially since early 2014 when he authorised sanctions against certain Russian individuals and entities for violating the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
Thus, reactions to Mr. Tillerson’s nomination have been divided between relief, among those who would welcome the likely thaw in Washington-Moscow diplomatic ties, and alarm, of critics who fear that as in Mr. Trump’s case, Mr. Tillerson may find it difficult to disentangle his personal and official interests. In his confirmation hearing in the Senate he will be grilled, in all likelihood by John McCain and his peers, on his views on whether Russian hackers had interfered in the presidential election, as the U.S. intelligence community suggests they did, and whether these hackers could still launch cyberattacks on U.S. targets. His answers will provide clues about how he might carry out his duties as America’s top diplomat. They will also supply clarity on his apparent belief, contra-Trump, that human activity does cause climate change, necessitating mitigation and adaptation efforts. To India, the nomination of Mr. Tillerson, if successful, may smooth military cooperation with Moscow as Obama-era hostility towards Russia softens. ExxonMobil also has extensive oil business assets on Indian soil, so New Delhi may have reason to be sanguine about bilateral détente, especially in trade and investment terms.